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East Chicago

The USS Lead Superfund site and surrounding area in East Chicago.

EAST CHICAGO — State health officials have been given the green light to spend up to $15 million over the next five years to bolster lead hazard testing and removal efforts in East Chicago, South Bend and other cities where low-income children are at risk for exposure.

Much of the focus in East Chicago this past year has been on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's investigation and cleanup of toxic soil left by past industry in the Calumet neighborhoods.

However, the city’s older housing stock — where lead paint often is present — is another culprit.

In 1978, the federal government banned lead-based paint, which remains a common source of lead poisoning in small children. Even at low levels, lead can have lifelong negative effects on children’s academic ability. 

Indiana Health Commissioner Kris Box said in a news release she hopes the funding "will significantly increase" testing and abatement activities and "provide hundreds of additional children a better path toward normal development."

'Hundreds of homes'

The state Family and Social Services Administration received federal authority to spend up to $15 million over the next five years to combat the problem by removing lead hazards in homes. This is a first for FSSA, a spokesman said, as there had been no FSSA funds previously dedicated to abatement.

Families with lead-poisoned, Medicaid-eligible children would be first in line to receive risk assessment and abatement services, a spokesperson said. 

Children enrolled under Medicaid are at greater risk for exposure to lead. In 2012, for example, about 96 percent of the Hoosier children who had elevated blood lead levels were Medicaid recipients, state data show.

The new health initiative will be led by the Indiana Department of Public Health’s Lead & Health Homes Division and funded through the federal Children's Health Insurance Program.

ISDH will contract with the Indiana Community Action Association in Indianapolis, which will administer the funds and disburse them to local community action agencies to coordinate abatement work.

The $3 million each year could cover the cost of testing and abatement for “hundreds of homes,” state officials said. ISDH declined to speculate further, saying the total number of homes affected “will depend on the cost and scope of the abatement work needed.”

Who is eligible? 

An ISDH spokeswoman said children with blood lead levels at or above the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s action threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter would be eligible.

The state of Indiana legally only requires case management services — which may include monitoring, treatment plans and environmental assessments of the child’s home — in situations where a child has a confirmed elevated blood lead level of at least 10 micrograms per deciliter. 

State health officials provide educational materials in cases where a child tests at or above 5 mcg/dl. An ISDH spokeswoman also said the department “recommends” that local health departments initiate case management services at levels of 5 mcg/dl.

Despite the federal requirement that all Medicaid-eligible children be tested for lead poisoning, the majority of the at-risk population remains untested, because some physicians do not routinely test children younger than age 7 for exposure, according to a 2015 lead surveillance report by ISDH. 

The state has a poor track record of fulfilling the federal requirement. In 2012, fewer than 30 percent of Medicaid-eligible children — or 106,934 of 362,586 — received the required lead testing, according to state data.

State officials in the news release said they “hope the program, along with continued efforts to raise awareness and education among families and primary care providers, will help ensure appropriate lead screening among children who are at risk for lead exposure.”

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Filling in the gaps

State officials in a news release said the repurposed funds will “supplement other federal, state and local efforts aimed at reducing the harmful effects of lead exposure on children.”

The state’s housing authority also plans to step up its testing and abatement efforts with a $3.4 million federal grant. 

In East Chicago, the city’s $1.2 million housing rehab program — one of the only local options for low-income families that may need lead paint abatement — is currently inaccessible. A lengthy backlog and limited funding prompted the city’s redevelopment director, Frank Rivera, to close the application process last year.

The estimated wait time for those currently on the waiting list is approximately two to three years, city officials have said. It's unknown when the application process will reopen.

Ezell Foster, president of the city’s redevelopment commission, on Saturday welcomed the news that more funds will be flowing into East Chicago to aid low-income families who otherwise could not afford to abate lead hazards.

“This is good. This is really good,” Foster said.

Foster, who lives in the USS Lead Superfund site, said his front yard was remediated by the EPA this year. He is still waiting on EPA test results to see if he has lead paint in his home, he said.

What about the Superfund site?

An ISDH spokeswoman would not say if the state plans to specifically target homes in the Superfund site, but noted top priority will be given to households with Medicaid-eligible children with lead poisoning in cities such as East Chicago and South Bend.

Earlier this month, The Times reported that nearly half of the 102 homes tested by the EPA in the USS Superfund site in East Chicago had evidence that lead paint may be present. It is unclear how many of these homes have children.

The EPA has said it has no plans to remove lead paint in Superfund homes, because such activity is "outside the authority of (the agency's Superfund program.)”

In recent months, community groups in East Chicago have called on the state to pay for more testing and abatement of paint and dust hazards in the Superfund site, saying all homes should be tested. Currently, EPA is only testing homes with yards that required cleanup.

Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University Pritzker Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic and working pro bono on behalf of Superfund site residents, said they are awaiting a formal response from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office. 

Still, Chizewer said FSSA’s new health services initiative is “encouraging.”

“The community has expressed its concern about resources for lead dust and paint abatement and the state’s response to those concerns is a positive sign. It’s important for residents living on the Superfund site to get help in abating lead paint,” Chizewer said.

“It shows the state recognizes there’s a need to dedicate more resources to lead dust and paint abatement,” Chizewer said.

Stephanie Wilson, a spokeswoman for Holcomb, said the announcement "contributes to the state’s all-hands-on-deck effort in partnership with local and federal officials to assist Hoosiers affected by lead contamination in and around the East Chicago Superfund site,” Wilson said.

Chizewer said other vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, women of child-bearing age and senior citizens with health issues in the Superfund site should also be targeted for lead paint and contaminated-dust abatement.

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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.