Temple Terrace, Florida - Sometimes, the biggest danger in the neighborhood is lurking in the front yard; invisible to the naked eye.
The 10 News Investigators - in conjunction with a 14-month project with partner USA Today - investigated lead levels in residential neighborhoods that were above what some people considered safe for kids.
USA Today conducted tests near hundreds of old lead factory sites across the country, spanning 13 states, 1,000 samples, and 21 neighborhoods - including one in the Tampa Bay area, where Gulf Coast Lead (later Gulf Coast Recycling) operated from 1953 to 1963.
"I don't think I'm going to let (my grandchildren) play outside," said Temple Terrace resident Isabel Ramos, when told of her proximity to the old smelter site. "We're outside all the time and nobody ever told us anything about it."
Ramos' home is one of dozens in Temple Terrace near where the old factory operated. It was later replaced by the Normandy Park apartments on 56th St., but there are indications toxic lead dust may have been left behind. Lead dust can remain in topsoil for centuries.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitored a cleanup of the site back in 1991 after kids living at Normandy Park started digging up old batteries from the factory and displaying possible symptoms from lead exposure. But neighboring plots were ignored, while neighbors were never told of the possible danger.
USA Today tested the soil in Temple Terrace neighborhood and found a few elevated readings, between 100 and 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead. The EPA identifies 400 ppm as a "hazard," but some states, including California, consider 100 ppm a danger.
Studies show that children who ingest even the smallest amounts of lead are more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral problems, or lose points on their IQ. There is no way to positively identify where the lead in the neighborhood came from, but the old smelter is a possibility.
And records obtained by the 10 News Investigators indicate that federal officials knew there were hundreds of potentially contaminated sites like this across the country, yet did little to fix it.
The EPA told USA Today in a statement that some of the sites will get extra attention following the report, but that it has little concern about the Temple Terrace site because the Gulf Coast operation was "of small scale and occurred for 10 years at the most. They had a maximum of 10 employees at any one time including office personnel and workers."
An EPA statement added that the smelter did not have a smokestack, which would contribute to lifting particles into the air where they can travel before falling to the ground, adding, "none of the perimeter or off-site soil samples indicated that widespread air deposition of lead at levels of concern had occurred."
But last year, the EPA was told of a need for additional off-site soil sampling - not just because of possible lead - but also because another toxic metal believed to be used at the factory - antimony - was found in abundance. Antimony is a semi-metallic chemical element that's toxicity has the effects that are similar to arsenic poisoning.
"The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, there is no clean soil act," said Tulane University professor Howard Mielke, an expert on toxins and children. "We have never had the necessary legislative or regulatory type of power to do anything about what we've learned. The funding chain tends to be we have to prove that a certain industry has done something before we get the funds necessary to do something. We have to figure out how to put the focus on the child and prevent them from getting exposed to the lead that's accumulated in the environment from all sources."
The EPA contends that residents near the old Temple Terrace smelter were never notified because the site was of minimal concern because of its small scale.
"The EPA does not notify residents of potential contamination based solely on the possibility that past industrial activities may have occurred," an EPA statement said. "This type of approach would unnecessarily alarm residents and community members."
Neighbors, especially those with children, are advised to take action themselves. That means limiting exposure to bare dirt, putting down a cover soil or grass over the old soil and washing children's hands every time they come in.
USA Today has documented over 200 neighborhoods near former smelter sites that are at risk of lead contamination. If you are interested in learning more about these sites and what you can do to protect your family, explore the resources on USA Today's Ghost Factories Interactive.