August 25, 2016 by John Nicholson
Reports of lead contamination in the soil at a housing complex and school and the City of East Chicago, Indiana has drawn parallels to the lead contamination problem in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
Decades ago, the City was home to dozens of lead and copper factories. After the factories closed, a public housing complex and elementary school were built nearby. Unfortunately, the homes of approximately 1,000 were built on soil that was contaminated by the toxic dust that had spewed by the former factories.
In 1985, after that last of the lead production facilities shut down, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management tested the neighbourhood for contamination. It found that the lead levels in the soil exceed 11,000 ppm in six of the 14 locations tested. The U.S. EPA maximum level for lead contamination in soil is 400 ppm.
In 1992, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) proposed that the area where that factories had stood be added to the Superfund National Priorities List. When a site is on the Superfund List, federal funds are made available to clean it up. The proposal was rejected at that time.
In 2009, the U.S. EPA finally did designate the area were the factories had once stood and the surrounding neighbourhood as a Superfund Site. The total area designated for clean-up was 74 acres. In 2012, tests confirmed high levels of lead in the soil in the surrounding neighbourhood and a plan was drawn up to remove the impacted soil from the neighbourhood.
It was only this past summer that signs were posted in the affected areas warning that the soil was contaminated and that children should not play in the soil. Soil sample results from May of 2016 showed that levels as high as 91,100 ppm in some locations in the neighbourhood – 228 times the EPA’s maximum permitted lead levels.
Most recently, the Public Housing Authority for the Town announced that they planned on demolishing the 346-unit complex and that the 1,000 residents would need to find permanent housing elsewhere.
Recent testing for lead in the blood of residents in the community shows 29 of the initial 400 individuals screened have high lead levels in their blood. Of the 29 persons with elevated lead levels, 21 are children under the age of six.
Children are most susceptible to lead contamination in soil as they typically play in the dirt and are less likely to wash their hands after playing outdoors. Lead contamination in children under the age of six is particularly damaging as it can severely affect mental and physical development.