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Saturday, November 27, 2021

I’m Just Sayin’: Focusing on lead contamination

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Environmental justice, specifically lead remediation, needs to be on our mind. 

Recently, the Indiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights produced its findings after hearing hours of testimony over multiple hearing dates. More troubling is that the advisory committee could not get anyone from a state government agency to participate in the hearings. 

Strong evidence was presented that in the late 1950s local officials in East Chicago ignored previous studies which found what would eventually become the location for both a housing project and an elementary school were unsuitable due to high levels of lead. 

Even after obtaining special “environmental justice community” designation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the people of East Chicago did not get relief from continued contamination by local businesses, nor did they seem to receive adequate lead remediation — if any at all. 

More broadly, the concern is that homes built before 1978 likely used lead-based paint. According to the report, every county in Indiana has housing that likely needs lead remediation — 23.2% of homes built before 1950 and 44.9% of homes built before 1970. 

The experts noted at issue are the lack of systematic testing and registry of rental homes or other housing that has been inspected or abated. 

This problem continues to persist even as the report, and common sense, tell us the negative impact of lead is both permanent and irreversible on human beings — and is especially devastating to the development of young people.

But lest we think this is just an East Chicago problem, the IndyStar uncovered significant problems with lead in our local schools. According to a report obtained by the IndyStar, lead-tainted water was found in over half of Marion County schools and child care facilities.  

A review of the report the IndyStar obtained shows that 159 schools had lead levels between 20.04 ppb to 8,630.15 ppb (parts per billion). Out of the nine townships, five had more than 10 facilities with lead and a couple of townships had nine buildings. Charter schools collectively had over 10 facilities with elevated lead issues. 

To the legislature’s credit, it did pass IBLC member Rep. Carolyn Jackson’s HB 1265, which initially focused on Lake County but was amended to require schools to test for lead by 2023 and perform the necessary remediation. 

The reality is that lead in water doesn’t just magically stop at schools. It is highly likely that other dwellings, including homes, have lead in the water. Indiana needs systematic testing for lead and other deposits in our water system, soil and paint.

Significant investments have been made recently by Citizens Energy to improve water quality. There are both state and local brownfield development programs that provide some support for remediation. There is also a lead paint remediation program run by the Marion County Public Health Department. 

As we push for legislators and government agencies to do more, we as a community need to do our part. 

We have to test our children and ourselves, especially if we live in residences built before 1978. 

The Marion County Public Health Department has a helpful tip sheet that can be found here. The tip sheet includes what to look for when considering whether a loved one has possibly been exposed to high levels of lead. 

Marshawn Wolley is a lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur. Contact him at marshawnwolley@gmail.com.

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