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HAMMOND — Local and state officials held a free blood lead testing clinic for residents living near the former Federated Metals facility March 16, more than a month before EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made an unannounced visit to the site and authorized $1.7 million for removal of lead-contaminated soil in the Robertsdale neighborhood. 

A small number of people living in a soil sampling area designated by the Environmental Protection Agency were tested, the Indiana State Department of Health said. A spokeswoman declined to disclose the specific number of people tested, citing privacy concerns.

ISDH does not expect anyone tested March 16 to have a confirmatory blood lead level above 10 micrograms (ug/dl) per deciliter, spokeswoman Jennifer O'Malley said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 reduced its action level for lead poisoning cases from 10 ug/dL to 5 ug/dL, a stronger standard. However, Indiana's action level remains 10 ug/dL.

Children with confirmatory blood lead levels of 10 ug/dL or higher qualify for case management services.

On Wednesday, John Mucha's young son rode a tricycle near his rental home in the 1400 block of Lakeview Avenue, just north of the former Federated Metals plant at 2230 Indianapolis Blvd.

Mucha and his wife said they were unaware of EPA soil testing and the March 16 blood testing clinic. The couple, whose landlords live outside the U.S., also said they had not received any information about how to protect children from lead in soil.

Families who didn't participate in the March 16 blood testing and would like to have their blood level tested should contact their physician, EPA and the Lake County Health Department said. 

Soil testing results online

Children are particularly at-risk when exposed to lead, because their bodies are growing quickly. Children also tend to put their hands to their mouths more often, increasing exposure risk. Even at low doses, lead can cause behavioral problems and irreversible learning disabilities.

Indiana Department of Environmental Management Commissioner Bruno Pigott told The Times after Pruitt's visit April 19 the EPA administrator had authorized a time-critical removal action at about 25 homes where lead levels exceed 1,200 parts per million or sensitive populations, particularly children, live.

When asked how it was aware of where children might live, EPA acknowledged the March 16 blood testing clinic.

"EPA works closely with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and other health agencies," a spokeswoman said. "If elevated blood lead levels in a child are reported to health agencies, ATSDR can recommend prioritizing that property for remediation."

EPA has been sampling city- and privately owned properties in Hammond, where the plant is located, and nearby Whiting.

The agency recently posted validated sampling results for 85 Whiting properties and 46 Hammond properties at its website for the facility. Residents have been advised of how they can reduce potential exposure to lead, but EPA is still investigating the extent of contamination and risks posed at the site, a spokeswoman said.

A homeowner in the 1300 block of Lakeview, who declined to be identified for this story, said the lead level in his backyard was about 2,700 parts per million. EPA told him it would clean up his property in May or June and provided him with information about the blood testing clinic and reducing exposure, he said.

The man said if he'd known about the lead contamination, he likely would not have purchased him home several years ago.

EPA said it had identified five priority properties, which are targeted for excavation beginning in late May, weather dependent.

That number may increase "if additional properties are identified at or above 1,200 ppm with sensitive populations or children’s blood lead levels at or above 10 ug/dL," EPA said.

Historical data concerning

Preliminary data released by the Indiana State Department of Health shows 9.6 percent and 7.4 percent of children younger than 7 in the two census tracts where EPA has been sampling soil had a blood lead level at or above 10 ug/dL. However, the historical data may not provide an accurate picture because it includes confirmatory results as well as initial screening results, false positives and unknown sample types, the department said. 

By comparison, about 21.7 percent of children living in the census tract that includes the lead- and arsenic-contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex had elevated blood lead levels during the same time period.

Nationally, about 1.9 percent of children are estimated to have elevated blood levels above 5 ug/dL — the lower CDC standard, largely due to lead-based paint in older homes.

The highest lead levels in the top 6 inches of soil found so far in Robertsdale were 2,760 ppm in Hammond and 2,040 ppm in Whiting, EPA data show.

The highest result overall was found in 12 to 18 inches of soil in Hammond, where the lead level was 3,540 ppm.

EPA's residential cleanup level at the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago is 400 ppm, and some states require soil cleanups at even lower levels. For example, California's screening level for lead in soil is 80 ppm.

IDEM in December approved an air permit for Whiting Metals, which operates on the former Federated Metals property, without holding a public meeting, despite requests by the Hammond City Council and several residents. Whiting Metals reclaims and blends lead and solder from scrap, records show.

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Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.