It’s been over 30 years since an industrial plant that melted down lead and copper closed in the Indiana town of East Chicago, but officials are just now realizing that the toxins left behind in a nearby housing complex have been harming children this whole time.
The plant, and several others, operated for nearly 80 years during the 20th century and spewed toxic particles into the air that settled into the residents’ soil. Though the most harmful of the plants closed in 1985, it wasn’t until 2009 that the EPA listed the site as a priority for cleanup.
In the three years that followed, a plan was put in place for cleanup, but tests were just barely being conducted that revealed that the lead levels in the soil were alarmingly high. That was in 2012, but the EPA only recently gave the test results of the contamination to East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland in May.
The results indicated that the high levels of lead were even present in the upper six inches of soil, which children that play outside are exposed to regularly. At first, Mayor Copeland urged residents to relocate for a few days, but then he announced plans to demolish the entire 346-unit complex that houses over 1,000 low-income residents.
Long-time resident Akeeshea Daniels said, “When the wind would blow a certain way you would get a dark cloud of dust that would blow across the whole complex. I mean, you would think it was a sandstorm.”
This is reminiscent of what happened in Flint, Michigan with the amount of lead in their tap water reaching hazardous levels while officials ignored the problem, likely because the majority of their residents were low-income and African-American. In this housing complex in East Chicago, most of those living there are African-American and Hispanic.
Daniels also said, “They were doing testing all of these years and they never said anything. That was kind of shocking.”
Though the EPA had known for years that the amount of lead and arsenic in the soil was extremely dangerous, they never seriously informed the city nor the inhabitants. Instead, they issued general warnings of lead risks while they continued their testing.
Testing is now being conducted on residents to determine their level of exposure, and the results are disheartening. Of the 400 preliminary blood screenings conducted so far, 29 of them came back with high levels, and 21 of those people were children under the age of 6.
Over the years, some residents have sensed that something might have been off about the area, as there have been reports of respiratory problems, severe headaches, chronic illnesses, and attention deficits. With the horrible incident that occurred in Flint, it’s now nearly common knowledge that most of these are symptoms of lead poisoning.
For now, there is no deadline for when the residents need to relocate by, but the sooner the children and families leave the contaminated area, the better. The EPA has put their excavating on hold because of the plans for demolition and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has released $1.9 million for the residents to relocate.