A 30-year-old mother named Margie Smith put her 2-year-old son to bed at 9 p.m. Nov. 2, 1938, and found him dead the next morning. She was certain quickly after about what killed her son: lead fumes from a factory about a block from her home in Martindale-Brightwood.
The American Lead Corporation was built on the 1600 block of East 21st Street about 10 years prior. The Smith family and others in the community complained about possible lead poisoning, the effects of which included pets dying and contaminated corn that would kill livestock.
A report from the deputy coroner and a toxicologist confirmed what the mother and others already knew. Lead fumes were dangerous and likely killed Smith’s son, Lorado, the Recorder reported.
In the present day, Elizabeth Gore, part of the Martindale-Brightwood Environmental Justice Collaborative, meets people with ailments ranging from asthma to brain cancer and kidney failure. It’s common, she said, for people to start connecting the dots with their health and the health of their family once they learn about the history of lead contamination in the community.
It can be difficult to prove with certainty that someone’s immune deficiency, for example, is caused by lead or any other environmental factors, but the anecdotal evidence can accumulate over time by knowing the health history of a family or whole community.
Aside from the fumes, American Lead Corporation operated a lead reclamation smelter from 1946 to 1965, when National Lead Industries acquired the company. (Smelting is the process used to create lead.) Three chimneys that stored open-air piles of lead oxide burned in a fire in ‘65, which led to the facility closing.
National Lead Industries did a cleanup of properties with elevated lead levels in 2005 in agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has also removed lead-contaminated soil in the area.
There are numerous factors other than lead that contribute to the environment in a neighborhood or single block, including air pollution, food access and poor water drainage that can cause flooding.
The fallout of a poor environment can include stress, which has negative health consequences on its own. One study published in 2017 in The Lancet found stress increased the risk of heart disease.
Nieasha Richardson, a family nurse practitioner at Community Health Network, helped start a home-based patient care program in 2018 and has seen how the environment — where you live, sleep and play with your children — can impact your health.
Socioeconomic barriers such as education and income take the bulk of the blame in Indiana, Richardson said, which means it can be difficult for someone to change their circumstances on their own. It’s one thing to know you have diabetes and need to eat healthier, but what about when the closest grocery store is an hour and a bus transfer away?
Dr. Scheri-Lyn Makombe, chief medical officer at the Jane Pauley Community Health Center on the east side, has also seen the negative effects the environment can have on a person’s life.
Makombe has been a family physician for nearly seven years and said it can be overwhelming to look at all of the issues at once. It’s more practical, she said, to focus on educating patients and getting them what they need.
“It’s gonna be beneficial to be optimistic about each individual problem,” she said, “rather than walking away from the whole problem.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.