By Gitte Laasby, Post-Tribune
EAST CHICAGO -- Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in soil in neighborhoods near the lead-contaminated U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery site in East Chicago won't harm people's health, a federal agency announced Tuesday.
But more sampling is necessary to determine any impact on the environment, especially near the Grand Calumet River and in adjacent wetlands, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry concluded in a review released Tuesday.
The agency is a public health component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that evaluates the human health effects of exposure to hazardous substances.
In September 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed listing the U.S. Smelter and Lead site as a Superfund site, one of the most contaminated in the nation. At that time, the agency revisited its earlier public health assessment.
EPA added the site to its Superfund list in April 2009.
"Homes and yards to the north and northeast of the site are safe and do not pose a health hazard from lead," the agency said in the public health assessment.
It is out for public comment until March 1.
Lead exposure can lead to decreased intelligence, impaired growth, impaired neurobehavioral development and decreased hearing.
The agency concluded that lead-contaminated air from the site posed a public health hazard until the facility closed in 1985.
In 2004, contaminated soil was excavated and removed from 14 residential yards, but "several hundred other residential yards may still be contaminated," the agency said in its review.
Before 2006, lead contamination in yards downwind of the site also posed a public health hazard for young children eating contaminated soil, according to the agency's review.
It estimates that more than 11,800 people live within a mile of the site, the closest within a quarter of a mile north.
Some 1,500 children six years or younger live within a one-mile radius. Less than 3 percent of children tested for blood lead levels in 2008 had a level of concern, the agency said. It stressed that lower levels can still cause harmful effects.
The agency recommends that parents concerned about their children's exposure to lead have their children's blood lead levels tested by their health care provider.
As part of a previous remediation, IDEM oversaw structures on the site being buried and capped in an on-site landfill. But it's uncertain whether that took care of the problem.
"No post-remediation sampling is available to confirm that the contamination is contained or no longer accessible," the agency review said. "Contaminated wetlands and contaminated soil remain on site."
The agency has asked the EPA to sample on and near the Smelter site and to figure out clean-up options and their costs -- something EPA normally does with Superfund sites.