The Courageous Love Award arose from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign and is presented to individuals or organizations that have exhibited courageous love and touched hearts.
Courageous Love Award

This year’s recipient is truly worthy of this love. Howard Mielke is a Toxicologist in the Tulane Department of Pharmacology where he works on the chemistry of the urban
environment and its effects on people.

“In the early 1970s, leaded gasoline contained up to 2 grams of lead per gallon.” All that lead burned and was dumped into the air and then fell back to earth. Lead particles
don’t biodegrade. They mix in with the soil, get tracked into houses, and, most of all, end up on the hands and toys of little kids, leading to the ingestion of lead. Many of
you may not know this, but Howard was a national crusader and leader in getting the lead removed from gasoline.

Lead is everywhere, but it is most heavily concentrated in places that were close to a lot of vehicle traffic during the leaded gasoline days.  Much of our landscape,
especially inner city areas, is contaminated with lead. Too much lead in our bodies results in lead poisoning. This entirely preventable disease still presents a major
health threat in the U.S. Even though children of all races and ethnic backgrounds are at risk, those most at risk are city dwellers, the poor and minority populations who
live and work in the highest lead-contaminated environments. Unborn babies, infants and young children are especially vulnerable to lead.

Throughout the years, Howard’s priority has always been children’s safety. When his daughter Beverly had surgery to correct her eye condition, Howard asked doctors to test
her blood for high levels of lead and was laughed at. They told him children of good socioeconomic status who lived in nice neighborhoods weren’t at risk for high blood lead
levels. But they tested her blood for lead anyway, and Howard was right.

After that, he began testing any environment his daughter was being exposed to and found that many of her play areas were polluted with extremely high amounts of lead, including her daycare playground. He arranged to have the playground covered with clean soil, and as he expected, his daughter’s blood lead levels soon began to decrease.

Lead’s impact on the brain — particularly the developing brains of children and fetuses — is severe and systematic, “resulting in reduced [IQ], behavioral changes such as
shortening of attention span, increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment.”  Childhood exposure to lead dust has been linked to lasting physical and
behavioral effects. It has even been linked to instances of aggravated assault two decades after exposure!

Howard learned a lot from studying the effects Katrina had on New Orleans. He found that the solution to high levels of lead in urban soil can be found in the cleaner soils
outside of the city along the Mississippi River. Howard successfully used this cleaner river sediment, paired with a geotextile fabric, to cover lead contaminated soil found
in childcare center play areas. The city of New Orleans has already covered 13 parks with this soil.

Above: Howard shoveling low lead soil for the Treme Community garden project. Right: Jan Mun moving soil to add on top of the geotextile fabric for A Studio in the Woods as part of her art installation.

Howard also has collected thousands of soil samples from urban areas across the United States and tested them for lead content, allowing him to map the soil lead levels
throughout an entire city. He has mapped several large cities, including Baltimore, Detroit, and Minneapolis. His most recent lead mapping project took shape right here in
New Orleans where he lives and works.

Howard continues to battle the leaded gasoline of the past. Howard has been busy lately doing interviews regarding the terrible lead situation in Flint, Michigan. But his
message is: “It’s not just Flint — every major American city has hazardous amounts of lead hurting kids.”

Along with clean soil cover, Howard also says that changes need to be made in legislation to help protect the soil quality in urban areas. “The United States already
has a Clean Air Act and a Clean Water Act.  Why not some sort of clean soil program?” We have no doubt that Howard will continue to be a loving force to help bring about this change.

Presented by Elizabeth Trotter, Community Ministry Chair, April 10, 2016
Community Church Unitarian Universalist, New Orleans, LA

References: Information culled, paraphrased, and/or quoted from the following websites: