In East Chicago, Indiana, where 90 percent of this population of 29,000 are people of color and one-third live below the poverty line, a lead crisis is unfolding.
East Chicago was once called “the most industrialized city in the country.” For decades, industrial plants polluted the air and soil with lead and arsenic in East Chicago neighborhoods that included the West Calumet housing complex and Carrie Gosch Elementary School, where children played in contaminated yards and playgrounds. The contamination originated with lead smelters which produced lead additives for oil refined at the nearby oil refinery.
The EPA has known about possible lead contamination since at least 1985. But it wasn’t until 2014 that the EPA declared the lead plant in the area a Superfund site and began the cleanup. Lead contamination levels have been found to be as high 91,000 parts per million (ppm), over 200 times the 400 ppm level EPA considers safe. These are possibly the highest levels of lead contamination ever found in the country. Over 300 families who resided in the West Calumet housing complex have been evacuated from their homes, creating disastrous economic difficulties for many families.
In 2016, it was found found that children living near the Superfund site had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Testing of the blood of the children in the area revealed lead levels as high as 33 micrograms per deciliter. Five micrograms is considered “acceptable”, but there is no safe level of lead in the body, even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect I.Q. Over 20% of the children under age 7 were shown to have elevated lead levels, compared to 2% nationally.
The EPA subsequently tested the water and found that not only did the homes in the vicinity have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, but so did the entire city—much like Flint, Michigan. The EPA has estimated that up to 90 percent of East Chicago homes receive water through lead service lines.
The contamination of East Chicago’s soil by lead smelters and the contamination of the city’s drinking water have been called “unrelated”, but they are both part of a legacy of environmental racism in the Northwest Indiana Region. Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. As Jacqueline Patterson, NAACP Director of Environmental Climate Justice Program, has explained:
“This is too frequent, these hazardous contaminations occurring within black, brown, and vulnerable communities, it is a systemic pattern I see across the nation. This challenge must be addressed at the root of the socio-economic and political underpinnings of these types of systemic inequities that disproportionately impact communities of color and low income communities.”