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

Michigan expands Medicaid to cover pregnant women and children of Flint

Michigan obtained approval for its Section 1115 waiver request to extend Medicaid coverage to Flint residents affected by exposure to lead. The demonstration will extend Medicaid coverage to 15,000 additional children and pregnant women. Additionally, under the program, 30,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in the Flint area will be able to access expanded benefits.


The expanded coverage will apply to children up to age 21 and pregnant women who used Flint’s water system from April 2014 through a date when the water is deemed safe. The coverage will be limited to those with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. However, Michigan will provide individuals with higher incomes an opportunity to purchase coverage without subsidies. The state will provide targeted case management services as part of the arrangement in order to assist impacted residents with obtaining medical, social, and educational services. The demonstration will last for a period of five years.

Water crisis

The lead exposure problem began two years ago when the city’s water supply was changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Following the source transition, residents noticed changes in their water—discoloration and bad smell and taste. Ultimately it was determined that lead was present in the water. Research indicated that children from the area younger than five—the population most vulnerable to lead poisoning—showed elevated blood lead levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lead can have serious long-lasting effects on children, from learning difficulties to death. The approval of the waiver request follows a declaration by the President that the Flint water crisis reached a state of emergency.


Other states have used Medicaid in emergency situations in the past. For example, approximately 350,000 New Yorkers were covered by Disaster Relief Medicaid (DRM) for the four-month time period following the September, 11, 2001, attacks. Michigan also used a Section 1115 waiver to expand its Medicaid program under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148). The state’s demonstration waiver, known as the “Healthy Michigan Plan” was initially approved on December 23, 2013. The Healthy Michigan Plan covers eligible adults with income up to and including 138 percent of the federal poverty level.