EAST CHICAGO — A federal agency charged with assessing public health risks in the USS Lead Superfund site has released its first in a series of reports, confirming many young children living there were nearly three times more likely to be lead poisoned compared to those living elsewhere in the city.
The report — “Historical Blood Lead Levels in East Chicago, Indiana Neighborhoods Impacted by Lead Smelters” — summarizes blood lead levels in children under age six in the Calumet neighborhoods from 2005 to 2015, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
A child living in the West Calumet Housing Complex and the Calumet neighborhood was more likely to test at an elevated blood lead level above 5 micrograms per deciliter — the CDC's threshold for action since 2012 — during that time period, the report states.
In East Calumet, testing results were on par with other East Chicago neighborhoods, though more children still tested above 10 mcg/dL. The report also concludes blood lead levels of children generally declined between 2005 and 2015, as did the number of children tested.
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.
City and state health departments have had historical data of children testing positive for lead at the West Calumet complex — built in the early 1970s on top of a former lead smelter — but only recently did anyone act with any sense of urgency.
The Environmental Protection Agency only began cleaning Superfund properties in earnest two years ago.
The Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law said the ATSDR report confirms what the organization knew all along — that at-risk children living (in the Superfund site) were much more likely to have elevated blood lead levels and had declining testing levels despite the federal requirement that Medicaid eligible children be tested for lead."
"Children identified as having elevated blood lead levels did not receive the early intervention services and environmental investigations that they should have been entitled to. Early intervention services and environmental investigations should have identified the soil contamination as a grave public health concern much sooner and could have prevented many children from continued exposure and even worse health outcomes," staff attorney Emily Coffey said in a statement.
Attorneys, health experts, East Chicago officials, and residents have criticized ATSDR in recent years for releasing a flawed 2011 assessment that wrongly determined children’s health in the lead- and arsenic-contaminated Superfund site was not at risk.
The report concluded: "Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in 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.”
ATSDR opted to scrap that report and start anew on the heels of public outcry in summer 2016 when East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland ordered the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents, including 600 children, from the public housing complex.
The new report has yet to be completed and its release date is unknown.
Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University's Pritzker Law School Environmental Advocacy Center, said it's concerning EPA did not have the benefit of a detailed, accurate analysis when crafting a cleanup plan and carrying out that plan over the last two years.
She said the report is confirmation that families living in low-income, communities of color don't have the equitable access to environmental protections and healthcare.
“The big takeaway is that the local, state and federal government failed this community," Chizewer said.
ATSDR will hold a public meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the old Carrie Gosch Elementary School, 455 E. 148th St., in East Chicago, to discuss report findings and take questions and recommendations from residents and stakeholders.