Levitt Research Group Examines Elevated Blood Lead Levels

Shea Nagle '16, Ben Ligas '14, Scott Pillette '14, Sally Bourdon '15, Nicole LaBarge '15.
Shea Nagle '16, Ben Ligas '14, Scott Pillette '14, Sally Bourdon '15, Nicole LaBarge '15.

Hamilton’s open curriculum encourages students to explore interdisciplinary studies, combining multiple subjects in an original and constructive manner.  When one group of students became aware of an issue plaguing the local community, they knew that by using their unique research interests they could tackle the issue comprehensively.  These Levitt Group Research Grant recipients will pursue their passion for aiding others while contributing to a larger body of scientific knowledge.


Shea Nagle ’16, Ben Ligas ’14, Nicole LaBarge ’15, Scott Pillette ’14 and Sally Bourdon ’15 are crossing academic borders to study the adverse effects of lead exposure on soils, individuals and communities as a whole.  


The harmful effects of lead arise from leaded gasoline exhaust, older paint and industrial processes and byproducts, like smelting.  The lead enters the environment, is absorbed by the human body, and can induce biological and behavioral changes.


Bourdon and LaBarge are starting at the source to examine how people are exposed to lead.  Associate Professors of Geosciences Dave Bailey and Todd Rayne and Philip Klinker, the James S. Sherman Professor of Government, are assisting these students. 


The Geosciences Department is aiding with data collection by providing probes and other tools to measure lead levels in soils.  LaBarge hopes to “critique the sampling technique and eventually create a model for soil sampling that can be applied to any community.”


Lead’s limited mobilization and unique chemical behaviors need to be studied further to improve the effectiveness of abatement.  Since lead does not travel further than 20 cm into soil, LaBarge believes remediation of the toxic substance will improve when detection methods advance. 


Community gardens have existed in Utica for decades, and locals appreciate the cheaper, homegrown fruits and vegetables.  Bourdon will learn how the current lead levels in community gardens are affecting the crops.  She believes the situation is, “disenfranchising struggling communities by having lead in the soil,” and harming their health. 


By looking at the current state of gardening systems, Bourdon hopes to propose new solutions both to remove the lead present and prevent more toxins from being introduced.  She regards this as a great opportunity for Hamilton students to develop a lasting relationship with the local area.

Professor of Biology Herman Lehman is working with Nagle and Pillette to study how lead enters and damages our bodies.  Lead reaches our organs through calcium ion channels.  However, the group found in its preliminary research that lead is also transported through iron channels.  Nagle explained, “Lead utilizes these pathways because it structurally mimics the useful ions,” and manipulates our bodies into transferring the toxic compound. 


Pillette will focus on the effects of lead on the central nervous system, particularly the brain. He explains that, once in our system, “lead disrupts synapses and other brain components in many different ways.”  This component will culminate in a lab procedure to study an unknown aspect of lead poisoning that could lead to future improvements in medical knowledge. 


Nagle will approach the issue with public health in mind.  She will determine which organs retain the greatest amount of lead and the resulting impact on our bodies.  This work will address the financial strain placed on our health system from the medical care of diseases caused or exacerbated by elevated blood lead levels.   


Nagle explained that lead affects every generation, as it can easily be absorbed into women’s bones and leech leach into the fetus during pregnancy. Poorer populations are more prone to iron deficiency if they do not maintain a balanced diet.  This iron deficiency makes it easier for lead to outcompete the healthy ions and infiltrate their bodies.  She affirmed, “The only sustainable way to attack lead exposure is to prevent it from ever happening.”


Ligas became intrigued by the idea of elevated blood lead levels triggering social problems when Klinker briefed him on the project.  Ligas is now collecting national data in order to see if lower lead levels correlate with lower community crime rates.


He constructed a model that controls for other variables, like local police presence, and his preliminary results support the idea that lower blood lead levels result in lower crime rates.  With current research stating lead can also have a detrimental effect on intelligence, he will investigate its relationship to IQ levels. 


Bourdon concluded, “Struggles that poor communities face are compounded by the presence of lead.”  From increased health costs to diminished brainpower from the deleterious effects of lead, reducing the amount of lead in communities can improve individuals’ quality of life. 


Cathe Bullwinkle, quality improvement coordinator for the Oneida County Health Department, has accumulated much background information on this issue.  The Hamilton students hope that their work validates more of her claims, ultimately resulting in greater support to help their cause. 


Bourdon is a graduate of Medfield High School (Mass.);  Ligas graduated from New Hartford High School (N.Y.);  LaBarge is a graduate of Mohawk High School (N.Y.);  Nagle  graduated from Dolgeville High School (N.Y.); and Pillette is a graduate of Sunset High School (Ore.).

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