Flint. East Chicago. Our own city’s parks and schools. More than 2,000 years after humans first described the dangers of lead, the metal continues to do irreparable harm.
The West Calumet Housing Complex is home to nearly 1,200 people, located on a seventy nine-acre site in East Chicago, Indiana, which the Environmental Protection Agency has declared hazardous to human health. Up until 1985 a lead refinery, a copper smelter, and a secondary lead smelter were also in the area, and as early as 1987, federal and state agencies investigated the site as a potential cleanup priority. But due to limited resources and an abundance of red tape, the site has remained contaminated for decades.
When Saeri Geller’s son was fifteen months old, she caught him eating paint chips in their home in Grand Crossing. A visit to the doctor confirmed her fears: Ian had dangerously high blood lead levels.
We will spend whatever it takes. Whatever that cost is, we will pay it.”
Lead, a soft and naturally occurring metal, is one of the best-studied toxic substances known to humans—it is especially harmful to the brain, kidneys, bone marrow, and other body systems of young children. Childhood lead poisoning has been dramatically reduced over the past few decades, as lead has been phased out from gasoline, food and beverage cans, house paint, and other common sources. In 1978, there were about 14.8 million poisoned children in the United States; by the early 1990s, that number had declined to 890,000 children. In Chicago, the rates of elevated blood levels in children have decreased from one in four to fewer than one in one hundred children tested.
Wearing glasses and a heavy green sweater, Patrick MacRoy kneels down in the sweltering basement of his yellow brick Andersonville condominium and presses a key against the metal pipe. As he begins scratching it, silver filings shave off the pipe and fall onto the floor. That’s how MacRoy, the former director of the city’s Lead Poison Prevention Program, knows that the pipe (known as a service line) that brings drinking water from the city’s water main into his twenty-four-unit building is made out of lead, a toxic metal long known to cause cognitive and physical impairments in children.