Highlight on Indiana: Lead and arsenic contamination causes health problems for children in East Chicago

Approximately 1,200 residents of the West Calumet public housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana, are looking for new homes after dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic in the area’s soil were detected. The Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) is partnering with the East Chicago Health Department to offer free blood lead testing clinics for city residents, particularly those living in the West Calumet Housing Complex. However, a lawyer for some of the complex’s residents says it may already be too late; he reports that 85 children have tested for high lead levels.

East Chicago

East Chicago, Indiana, has about 30,000 residents. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, multiple manufacturing facilities in the area could have caused the contamination. The U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc. operated as a primary and secondary lead smelter in East Chicago from 1920 to 1985. Smelting operations generated waste materials including blast-furnace slag and lead-containing dust, and volatilized metals, including arsenic. Some of the waste materials were stockpiled south of the plant building and spread over an adjoining 21-acre wetland, and some lead-containing dust was deposited on area soils by the wind. Other potential sources of lead and arsenic contamination in the residential area include the former Anaconda Copper Company site, which manufactured white lead and zinc oxide, and the E.I. DuPont de Nemours Company facility, which manufactured the pesticide lead arsenate.

Soil contamination

In parts of the West Calumet Housing Complex, soil tested high for levels of lead and arsenic. Residents have been notified about these results, and warned not to allow children to play in dirt. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, advises parents to prevent children from playing in dirt or mulch, to wash toys regularly, and to wash children’s hands after they play outside. All residents should remove shoes before walking into their homes. Residents have also been advised to not disturb the mulch or dig or garden in their yards.

The Environmental Protection Agency initially planned to clean up the area by removing and replacing two feet of soil; however, after delays and accusations of not going far enough to protect residents, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland ordered the removal of all complex residents.

Lead poisoning in children

According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning can affect anyone of any age, but children under six are the most at risk. The signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children may include:

  • Developmental delay
  • Learning difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss