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East Chicago residents, advocates voice dissatisfaction after troubling report about children and lead levels released

Mark Johnson, regional director for Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, speaks Saturday during a public meeting at the old Carrie Gosch Elementary School in East Chicago about the agency's recently released report analyzing blood lead levels of children living in the USS Lead Superfund site.

EAST CHICAGO — USS Lead Superfund site residents and advocates were not shy about their frustrations Saturday with the local, state and federal government agencies responsible for the decades-long investigation into contaminants in the Calumet neighborhoods, blood lead testing and case management efforts.

And some were equally perplexed as to why it took the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — an advisory agency for the Environmental Protection Agency — two years to release its first in a series of reports about children’s blood lead results in the Superfund site.

“I’ve been waiting for this report for two years and I think this is just a waste of ink right now,” said Maritza Lopez, a resident of East Calumet, during a public meeting Saturday at the Old Carrie Gosch Elementary school.

The report — “Historical Blood Lead Levels in East Chicago, Indiana Neighborhoods Impacted by Lead Smelters” — largely confirms long-known troubling statistics: That many young children living there from 2005 to 2015 were nearly three times more likely to be lead poisoned compared to those who were living elsewhere in the city.

Nearly 840 children in the Superfund site were tested over this time period — and the large majority were black. More than half were on Medicaid.

Exposure to even low levels of lead can permanently affect a child's IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement.

“It’s disappointing. This shows us nothing we didn’t already know,” Thomas Frank, an environmental activist and member of the Community Strategy Group, said after Saturday’s meeting.

The EPA’s investigation into the Superfund site has been ongoing since the 1980s.

ATSDR’s first lead exposure investigation at the site arrived in 1998, recommending EPA remediation of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil, citing high blood lead levels in children.

An updated 2011 public health assessment by the same agency came to a strikingly different conclusion: "Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in the soil around the USS Lead site is not expected to harm people's health, as indicated by the declining blood lead levels in small children."

Mark Johnson, regional director for ATSDR, said the author of the 2011 report failed to specifically evaluate blood lead levels for children living in the Superfund site, but instead relied on city-wide data.

He added that the report’s conclusion in 2011 "no longer reflects" the agency’s current understanding of contamination in these neighborhoods.

Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University's Pritzker Law School Environmental Advocacy Center, argued to Johnson that the data were there all along — in ATSDR’s 1998 report — yet little was done to protect children from environmental harms.

The 1998 report showed 30 percent of young children tested in July 1997 had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter or more — CDC’s threshold for action at the time, she said.

“Let’s not beat around the bush. This is an environmental public health and housing injustice that’s happening here. ATSDR, HUD, EPA, Indiana State Department of Health, IDEM, the East Chicago Health Department and the East Chicago Housing Authority all left these kids in harm’s way,” Chizewer said.

It wasn’t until summer 2016 — five years after the site was designated for cleanup under EPA’s Superfund program — that anyone acted with any sense of urgency. Droves of families, including hundreds of children, were forced to evacuate the West Calumet Housing Complex beginning in the summer of 2016 amid public outcry.

Cleanup by the EPA in adjacent neighborhoods is ongoing.

On Saturday, local officials such as East Chicago Health Department Commissioner Gerri Browning and City Attorney Carla Morgan touted local and state efforts to test as many children as possible since summer 2016.

Browning said the local health department, with the state’s help, has administered more than 2,200 lead tests. Only about 16 cases remain active.

“That’s not to say there are not other cases out there. I’m telling you, it was like pulling teeth to get people to come out and get tested,” Browning said. “We had a lot of people relocated. The people who made themselves available (for testing), we are tracking. We’ve asked for forwarding addresses so we can appropriately follow up. But this is America. If somebody wants to get lost, they can.”

Chizewer argued it’s disingenuous to place the blame on parents, pointing to a short-staffed, dysfunctional local health department in 2016 and 2017.

As families were relocated from West Calumet, parents were not provided results over the phone or by mail, but could only find out if their child was lead poisoned in person at the health department, she said.

“They were prick-tested and weren’t told to come back (for confirmatory testing). Carla Morgan herself stood up at another meeting and said that 19 children never came back and that they had elevated results from the prick test. So we know there was dysfunction. To say you tested all these kids and there’s only 16 left in the system, there are probably 30 or 40 or maybe more than fell through the system because families, in haste, moved out or they didn’t know how to get their results because the East Chicago Health Department wasn’t making it clear to them.”

Former West Calumet resident Tara Adams said her family moved to the complex in 2007, when her daughter was 1-year-old.

"It just so happens when all of this hit the fan, she was 11. What happens to my child? She (recently) tested at a 1.4. Yeah, that's not action level, but what happened when she was 1, or 2, or 3? No one is tracking that," an emotional Adams said. "What happens to the ones who lived out there all these years? It's seems you're only focusing on what happened in 2016 and brushing over what happened before."

Browning said in cases where children are not tested at a young age, it’s extremely difficult to prove lead poisoning directly caused developmental and learning disabilities that may appear later in life.

Frank said that’s why the community has been demanding, to no avail, that the federal government pursue free health care coverage for all in the Superfund site like they did for residents of Libby, Montana, who suffered from asbestos-related disease and deaths caused by a nearby mining company’s activities.

“We need to treat these victims, past or present, as a class so that we don’t run into this cause and effect issue," Frank said.

Johnson said ATSDR is working on a more in-depth public health assessment that will review soil contamination, indoor dust, drinking water, outdoor air data and testing from 2016 and 2017 and recommend public health actions to the EPA and the public.

In a statement released after Saturday's meeting, leaders of the East Chicago Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group called on federal, state and local officials to act immediately to fullly address the ongoing lead contamination crisis in the Calumet neighborhoods.

In its release, the CAG demanded ATSDR to declare the site a public health emergency, and that public health authorities to expand access to Medicare. They want state and federal heath agencies to ensure broader testing and case management services, and that federal and local environmental agencies, including EPA, test for lead-contaminated dust in all homes, among other actions.

“We have waited an unacceptably long two years for this report to be produced, and all that it does is confirm what we have known for years: The Calumet neighborhoods have suffered an environmental and health injustice," the CAG wrote. "The children and adults in the USS Lead Site are suffering from myriad neurological and other life-threatening diseases and learning disabilities, including ADHD, associated with lead contamination and not enough action has been taken to protect the residents."


Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.