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Flawed CDC report left Indiana children vulnerable to lead poisoning

1,100 forced to move from housing complex

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By Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell, Reuters

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. — In this industrial northwest Indiana city, hundreds of families who live in a gated public housing community with prim lawns and a new elementary school next door are searching for new homes. Their own places have been marked for demolition.

The school, temporarily closed, has been taken over by the Environmental Protection Agency and health officials who offer free blood tests to check residents for lead poisoning. Long after the U.S. lead industry left East Chicago, a toxic legacy remains. Smokestacks at one smelter next door, shuttered 31 years ago, for decades polluted these grounds.

Emissions from the now-defunct U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc, or USS Lead, left a potent hazard in the soil. By early this year, the EPA detected concentrations of the heavy metal so high in some yards that they could pose a serious health risk to families at the West Calumet Housing Complex. Children are told not to play outdoors.

At the 44-year-old housing complex, all 1,100 residents are being forced to move out. Many are outraged about why the dangerous soils weren’t identified and removed earlier.

One reason: Five years ago, a unit of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a 19-page report that all but ruled out the possibility of children here getting lead poisoning. (http://bit.ly/2dAYVOt)

That CDC branch — the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, — conducts public health assessments to examine potential contamination risks and point the way to next steps to be taken by EPA and others.

In its January 2011 report, ATSDR said it reached “4 important conclusions.” Among them: “Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in soil in neighborhoods near the USS Lead Site is not expected to harm people’s health.”

ATSDR’s report was built on flawed or incomplete data, a Reuters examination found: The assumption that residents weren’t at risk was wrong, and many of the report’s key findings were unfounded or misleading.

The report said “nearly 100 percent” of children were being tested for blood lead levels in the impacted area. State data reviewed by Reuters show the annual rate of blood lead testing among children in East Chicago ranged from 5 percent to 20 percent over the last 11 years.

In the area, well known for its history of lead contamination, ATSDR reported that “declining blood lead levels in small children appear to confirm that they are no longer exposed to lead from any source.”

Yet from 2005 to 2015, nearly 22 percent of children tested in the Indiana census tract that contains the West Calumet houses showed an elevated blood lead level — 160 such results in all. Children tested in this tract were more than twice as likely to have an elevated reading than in other areas of East Chicago, state data reviewed by Reuters shows.

The CDC’s conclusions help explain why many West Calumet residents didn’t learn until recently that their yards were toxic, according to health experts, city administrators and data compiled by Reuters.

Carla Morgan, East Chicago’s city attorney, believes the report contributed to a false sense of safety. “In 2011, the ATSDR lacked data to make any conclusion about the potential health risks,” she said.

Contacted by reporters, the ATSDR initially said it would respond to detailed questions about its 2011 report. Over a period of weeks it said it was finalizing its responses. A spokeswoman, Susan McBreairty, told Reuters the answers were “complicated.” Reporters also sought comment from the two ATSDR scientists listed as authors of the 2011 report; neither responded.

Ultimately, ATSDR didn’t address the questions.

Instead, it released a broad media statement Thursday saying it is evaluating new EPA data “to determine if a human health hazard has developed since the Agency’s 2011 public health assessment (PHA) of the USS Lead and Smelter site.”

A new analysis will come next year, ATSDR said in the statement, and “will help determine if additional public health activities are warranted.”

BARRIER BETWEEN CHILDREN, SOIL

The report’s findings factored significantly into EPA’s decision not to conduct more urgent soil testing or urge residents to relocate, said EPA Region Five Administrator Robert Kaplan. Believing residents weren’t at imminent risk, EPA focused on a multiyear plan to gradually test for and replace lead-tainted soil.

Once EPA completed its soil-sampling this year, the scope of the danger for children was clear.

“The high levels of lead in many yards in East Chicago would require a barrier to be placed between children and the soil, to protect them,” said Dr. Helen Binns, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, who reviewed the testing data with Reuters.

EPA’s sampling found that 50 percent of the West Calumet homes tested had lead in their topsoil exceeding 1,200 parts per million, or three times the federal “hazard” level for residential areas.

That level warrants “time-critical” removal action within six months to protect human health, EPA standards say. In the most polluted yard found, a top layer of soil had 45,000 parts per million of lead.

Patrick MacRoy, a former head of the lead poisoning prevention program in Chicago, expressed shock after reviewing the ATSDR report. He found especially troubling its conclusion that children faced no threat of lead exposure.

“I can’t believe anyone with any degree of training or familiarity with environmental health would ever make (that) statement,” MacRoy said. “I can’t believe that no one reviewing that report internally, or even at EPA or the state, wouldn’t have flagged that as grossly misstating the available evidence.”

“I generally respect ATSDR, but that report is embarrassingly bad,” he said.

In recent months, 10 children under age 7 at West Calumet houses or in nearby areas were confirmed to have elevated lead levels, or around 5 percent of those tested, according to Indiana’s State Department of Health.

Following the notorious lead contamination of the drinking water supply in Flint, Michigan, around 4.9 percent of children tested there had high blood lead levels.

In East Chicago, more monitoring is planned, and the recent results do not mean children are in the clear, experts said.

Blood lead testing is usually indicated for children ages one and two. Ingesting lead-tainted soil, dust or paint chips is most common among infants and toddlers with hand-to-mouth behavior, said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, an expert on neurotoxins at Simon Fraser University.

A child poisoned at age two will often later test within a normal range. But the earlier exposure may have already wrought irreversible damage, including lifelong cognitive impairments.

‘WHAT ARE THEY DIGGING FOR?’

Today, outside the orderly brick houses in the community — due west of Gary, Indiana, and some 23 miles south of Chicago — moving vans are parked, and poster board signs warn residents not to play in the dirt.

Some of the 92 EPA staffers on site go door to door to speak with residents, offering testing and cleanup for lead inside their homes. Contractors have placed mulch over exposed dirt areas.

The forced exodus of tenants comes after East Chicago’s mayor told them this summer that lead and arsenic contamination in the area made it unacceptably risky to live here, especially for the area’s more than 600 children.

“I have lived here for five years and was never told anything about contamination until now,” said Akendra Erving, a mother of five young children who is moving her family to Alabama. “In May or June, I started to see these crews digging in peoples’ yards. ‘What are they digging for?’ I thought.

“Now I know.”

Recently, Erving got more bad news. A test showed that her three-year-old son, King, had a blood lead level of 8 micrograms per deciliter. Her daughter Kelis, 4, tested at 9 micrograms per deciliter. CDC recommends a public health response for children who test at 5 or above.

The lead crisis is the focus of several agencies, including ATSDR. EPA has taken a leading role, with Indiana’s State Department of Health, city officials, state environmental officials and federal and local housing agencies also involved.

Tensions and finger-pointing among the parties has sometimes grown heated. In July, East Chicago’s mayor wrote EPA a scathing letter, accusing the agency of withholding soil testing data that demonstrated grave health risks.

EPA’s Kaplan says the soil data was shared with the city as soon as the EPA could verify it, in May.

Recently, a “peacekeeper” division of the U.S. Justice Department, its Community Relations Service, stepped in to de-escalate conflicts.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)

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