Anthropogenic Lead in the Urban Environment

2016 Faculty Research Award

Award Period: 2016-2018; Extended 2018-2020

John Higgins, a Princeton assistant professor of geosciences, and Janet Currie, Princeton’s Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, are expanding their 2016 Urban Grand Challenges project, “Urban Tap Water and Human Health,” that provides no-cost lead testing for residents in Trenton, New Jersey. During the past two years, PEI summer interns and 18 Princeton undergraduates in the related course, “Geochemistry of the Human Environment,” have collected and analyzed: water samples from more than 300 homes; soil, dust and paint samples from more than 25 homes; and soil samples from four community gardens.

Higgins and Currie will build on this work by pairing Princeton students with students in the Isles Youth Institute — a GED and job-training program run by the Trenton-based non-profit Isles Inc. — to sample, analyze and interpret environmental data collected during house visits. In addition, material for the related course will be redesigned to focus on issues of environmental racism and justice — using lead as an example — to broaden its interest to non-science majors.

The core of the overall project is to collect and analyze tap-water samples in approximately 1,000 households in Trenton, then use the data to help explore links between urban water quality and human health. Public outcry over lead levels in residential tap water in Flint, Michigan, in 2016 has refocused attention on the health hazards posed by heavy-metal contamination in drinking water. The monitoring of contaminants is routine at central water-distribution centers, but it is infrequent at the point of consumption despite the corrosion of household plumbing being one of the most prevalent sources of lead, copper, zinc and other metals in water.

Higgins and students in his laboratory analyze the water samples for levels of 15 elements, including lead. Isles oversees the recruitment of participants living in Trenton; the training and management of staff, students and volunteers; the education of residents on maintaining a healthy home; and helping residents remediate homes found to contain unsafe lead levels. Data from Isles’ previous work of testing more than 2,000 homes in the city for lead dust is used with the water data from this project to develop a total budget of interior lead exposure that can inform lead-remediation strategies. Currie, who is director of the University’s Center for Health and Wellbeing, uses national census data to identify neighborhoods at risk for lead contamination based on housing-stock age and poverty. Currie also works with Isles to access state data so that she can explore the possible link between lead levels in children’s blood and special education.

Educational Impacts

Higgins and Sarah Jane White, a research associate of the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard University, developed a companion course for undergraduates, GEO 360: “Geochemistry of the Human Environment,” that debuted in Spring 2017. The course offers a hands-on opportunity for students to learn about the analytical and statistical tools used to study the chemistry of the environment (air, water and soil) and how this data is ultimately applied to questions of human health and well-being. In summer 2017, three Princeton students worked with Isles through the PEI summer internship program to collect and analyze water, soil and paint samples from Trenton residents’ homes. Students also were trained in how to use the data to search for links between the environment and human health. The course is being used as a mechanism for continued monitoring of urban tap water in Trenton.

The researchers also hope to establish a collaboration with Isles that other Princeton researchers can take part in to fulfill commitments to teaching, training, diversity and societal benefit that are required in grants from the National Science Foundation.

Participating Department

Collaborating Institutions

Related Media and Press Coverage


Associate Professor of Geosciences
Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs

Additional Researchers

Graduate Students

  • Jack Murphy, GEO

Undergraduate Students

  • Elizabeth Stanley, Class of 2018
  • Hinako Kawabe, Class of 2019
  • Young Joo Choi, Class of 2020