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An EPA sign warning residents not to play in the dirt or around the mulch is seen in summer 2016 at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. 

EAST CHICAGO — A Purdue scientist who has spent her entire career studying metal exposures is launching a pilot study focused on North Lake and East Chicago children impacted by lead and arsenic exposure in an aim to shape public health policy. 

Ellen Wells, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Purdue, said the team was awarded a $75,000 grant from the Ralph W. and Grace M. Showalter Research Trust Foundation to launch the study and recruit 75 to 100 children. 

Compensation includes a $20 gift card for the parents and a small toy for the child.

Published scientific studies have long established a clear link between lead exposure in young, developing brains and lower IQ scores, attention deficit disorders and behavioral issues, Wells said.

This study goes a step further in that it considers the impact of cumulative exposures from multiple metals, including lead and arsenic, she said.

The study will look at how the exposures affects behavior, cognition and verbal abilities.

Wells said she felt compelled to put together a study that focuses on East Chicago children after learning of the dangerously high levels found in the soil in the EPA-designated USS Lead Superfund site.

Local, state and federal officials have long known about the polluted soil in the East Chicago neighborhoods, but only recently began addressing the issue with any sense of urgency. 

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Upon learning of the contamination, Mayor Anthony Copeland evacuated more than 1,200 public housing residents, including 680 children, from the West Calumet Housing Complex in summer 2016, but homeowners are still living in two neighborhoods to the east as the EPA excavates their yards.

Wells said she believes this study could inform public policy makers by compelling experts to strengthen safety exposure standards and take into account the potential for simultaneous, cumulative exposure to multiple metals.

EPA’s allowable limits for lead in residential yards and drinking water are two examples, she said. Both standards, which were are severely outdated, only consider singular exposure.

Wells said children ages 5-12 will complete a one-time questionnaire that measures behavior, memory and attention.

Parents will also answer a questionnaire about behavior and permit Purdue to collect water and soil samples from their home, and hair and toenail samples from children to measure lead and arsenic levels.

Wells, who has closely watched the situation unfold in East Chicago, said the lack of resources for the EPA to test all homes for contaminated dust and water is unfortunate. Only homes with high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil received interior testing. 

“It’s really hard to say, without testing, whether everything will be clean or not,” Wells said.

Parents interested in allowing their child to participate in the pilot study should contact Wells at 765-494-6154. 

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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.