Dishmag Team | Aug 17, 2020

I’m not saying that progress hasn’t been made under their leadership, but adults have really made a mess of things in the 7,000 years that civilization has existed. Maybe it’s time to give kids a chance to rule. Why not? They can’t do any worse. With kids at the helm, maybe the powers that be will bring some creative thinking to the sectors of government that have long needed it.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. But one artist is already empowering kids by asking them to break out their art sets and get to work designing some Fundred Dollar Bills of their own. Mel Chin, a well-known conceptual artist, started Operation Paydirt in an effort to clean up New Orleans’ lead-laden soil. He explains, “I went down to New Orleans after Katrina to see what I could do. I was part of a creative team of artists and designers who went down there. After surveying the devastation, both physically and sociologically and socially, there was very little that I thought I could accomplish there. So I left. But because I left and felt traumatized by my inadequacy, I went back to New Orleans and began doing my research. That’s usually how I work on projects. I research to find out other possibilities or options for what the project could be.”

Chin visited the Xavier School of Pharmacology and Toxicology and spoke to Howard Mielke, a researcher “who’s studied soil for many, many years in New Orleans.” Chin told Dr. Mielke that the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) had reported that Katrina had brought in dangerous levels of heavy metal contamination, including lead. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), however, reported the opposite, that New Orleans had already had high levels of lead contamination before Katrina devastated the city. Dr. Mielke told Chin that the EPA was correct. So not only was Katrina not the main culprit, but, Chin learned, “30% of the inner-city childhood population of New Orleans was blood poisoned before the storm. Then I found a project to work on.”

The estimated cost to clean up New Orleans’ soil is $300 million. Chin thought, ‘We can’t raise that much money, but we can make that much money.’ And making the money is exactly what he’s doing. He has recruited schoolchildren all across the country to draw “fundreds,” which are their interpretations of the hundred dollar bill, complete with whatever pictures and messages they want our leaders to see. “As a conceptual artist—which is what I am; that’s my job—I could lead a project that would be able to gather all the voices that were concerned about this and deliver them and ask for change.”

Once he delivers the “fundreds” to Congress and asks to exchange them for $300 million, Chin will begin the revitalization process by placing minerals in the soil that will change the lead’s molecular structure and render the toxic heavy metal harmless. “The process is called phosphate-induced mineral stabilization. A low soluble form (to reduce any phosphate movement to water) of calcium phosphate is tilled in to the soil like fertilizer. It bonds to create a non-bioavailable form of lead—pyromorphite,” meaning the lead can no longer be inhaled or ingested. “We also cover the area with six inches of clean soil, which is what Dr. Mielke does to immediately reduce the hazard. We call it TLC—Treat, Lock and Cover.”

Lead poisoning sounds terrible to begin with, but why exactly is it such a problem? Chin cited a recent study from the Cincinnati Children’s Environmental Health Center. According to the study, “Lead exposure has been linked to specific behavioral problems, including conduct disorder and delinquency, mental retardation, and ADHD-like behavior. However, many studies linking environmental toxicants with neurobehavioral effects have only examined children with high exposures. There is emerging evidence that adverse effects of exposure to lead, mercury, and PCBs occur at levels previously thought to be low.” And, Chin pointed out, “Proper nutrition has a lot to do with it, too. So you can see how it’s a double whammy with poverty. If you don’t get that last meal, the stomach acids are grinding away and absorbing the lead into the bloodstream.”

If an artist downloads a template from fundred.org and draws a “fundred”, Chin’s team will come pick it up at a nearby collection center. “A collection center is any school or art center that is committed to trying to get at least 7,000 drawings in. The school also agrees to store the drawings until it’s time to take them to Congress. “My job has flipped from the person who initiated the concept to a delivery person,” Chin says.

It also helps that Chin’s armored truck runs on recycled cooking oil. “We try to recycle and reuse. We try to be conscious as best we can.” In fact, tetra-ethyl lead, once widely used in gasoline, was one of the two main contributors to the lead contamination in New Orleans and other cities. “This gasoline was very much a part of the American automobile institution. Why New Orleans would have such concentrations is that it’s a tourist city. The highways are packed.” The other contributor is pre-1978, lead-based paint. “We’re not talking about big paint flakes,” said Chin. “We’re talking about the levels that can enter the bloodstream through inhalation or ingestion.” Chin advises against sanding your home. “Sanding is one of the worst things you can do because you turn lead paint to dust. Most people sand their homes, for whatever reason. When you turn it to dust, you put it into the air.”

Chin wants to solve the problem of lead contamination conclusively, first in New Orleans, then throughout the rest of the United States. “That’s what the operation is concerned with,” he says. Chin’s goal is ambitious: he hopes to have the three million fundreds all drawn and donated by the spring of 2010, about a year from now.

“This project is not about me,” Chin pointed out. “It is about all the people who do the drawings. I’m one of three million artists.” And the artists aren’t alone either. It’s a community effort. According to the “fundred” website, Operation Paydirt is “an extraordinary art/science project uniting three million children with educators, scientists, health care professionals, designers, urban planners, engineers, and artists.” 

A lot of people might look at this project, though, and ask, “What can art really do for the world?” “That’s the wrong question,” Chin said. “What can your art do? What can your drawing do?” These are the questions an artist needs to ask, he said. 

“A simple drawing takes an hour. A day, if you really want to focus on it. Print out the template, try it yourself, and give us the responsibility to show you what it can do. We’ll ask the people in Congress for the money to do this, and we will show the way. But we can’t do it without the voices.”

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Dishmag Team

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