Indiana University Experts Testify on State Lead Contamination

IU Environmental Resilience Institute director, historian testify before Indiana arm of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
March 2, 2020

A pair of Indiana University experts were among those who testified in Indianapolis to the Indiana arm of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the status of lead exposure in the state.

Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute director Janet McCabe and ERI environmental historian fellow Elizabeth Grennan Browning testified to the Indiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the state’s plans to respond to lead poisoning problems and how barriers like environmental racism have slowed that response.

The public briefing was held to examine the challenges facing diverse communities and the possible disproportionate exposure to lead in Indiana.

IU ERI director Janet McCabe and ERI environmental historian fellow Elizabeth Grennan Browning testified to the Indiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about lead contamination in Indiana. ERI photo

McCabe testified that the biggest barriers to protecting Hoosier kids from lead poisoning are a lack of funding, a failure to prioritize funding for state and local health department Lead Poisoning Programs and reactive instead of proactive response.

“[E]ven though we know where the vast majority of the lead hazards are —I n our older housing stock — our system waits for a child to be poisoned before any action is taken, and even then the action taken is not sufficient to prevent other children from being poisoned,” McCabe told the committee.

Lead poisoning can cause a series of adverse health conditions in children like brain damage, learning disabilities, decreased growth, hyperactivity, hearing problems, paralysis and even death.

The most common source of lead contamination is exposure to lead-based paint and lead plumbing fixtures. Those sources are found mainly in homes built before 1978.

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, children under 7 are more vulnerable to lead hazards due to the rapid growth of their bodies and brains.

The most recent available data shows that 68,868 children under 7 years had at least one test for lead in 2018.

graph data
Source- Indiana State Department of Health

McCabe also testified that the state’s policy on lead sampling in school drinking water may have played a role in exposing children to lead.

She said that the Indiana Finance Authority conducted a statewide sampling of more than 900 school buildings. Of those schools, 62% were found to have had at least one fixture with a level above 15 parts per billion, the level at which the U.S. Environmental Agency’s requires a series of immediate actions.

The sampling did not include all Indiana schools. The state has made lead sampling voluntary, meaning states can opt out of the testing.

The Marion County Health Department completed its own report of lead in drinking water in Marion County schools in January 2019. About 54% of the 297 school buildings tested had at least one sample with elevated levels. Testing also found that 5.4% of samples taken had values above the EPA’s action level.

Browning testified that these and other, more insidious, barriers have had “devastating” impacts on parts of the state disproportionately affected by lead contamination.

Browning focused her statements on the lead contamination issues faced by Hoosiers living near the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, especially the people living in the former West Calumet Housing Complex.

Remediation in East Chicago
People living near the USS Lead Superfund site have experienced lead contamination problems for decades.

“Lead contamination has not only harmed East Chicago children’s neurological and physiological development, but it has also jeopardized their safety networks and social wellbeing,” Browning said. “In the case of East Chicago’s West Calumet Housing Complex, it led to the erasure of a tight-knight community and the interruption of children’s education.”

The remnants of a lead smelting and chemical manufacturing plant at the USS Lead site has threatened health in northwestern Indiana for decades.

State and federal agencies have found evidence of lead contamination in residential areas surrounding the site since the 1980s.

Children living near the sites showed evidence of elevated blood lead levels, but residents were told the area was safe from contamination after several remediation attempts.

About six years later, the EPA found soil near and under the West Calumet Housing Complex was contaminated with lead levels up to 70 times the U.S. safety standard.

The apartment complex was closed, and more than 1,000 residents, including about 680 children, were forced to find new housing.

Browning said a series of regulatory failures and government inaction compounded problems faced by the complex residents.

“This tendency for industry to site environmental hazards in lower-income minority communities remains a challenge for northwest Indiana — one that will require extra vigilance by communities like East Chicago’s West Calumet neighborhood, which continues to uncover toxic waste from its long history of industrial contamination,” Browning said.

Prior to leaving office for the vice presidency in 2017, Gov. Mike Pence rejected the request of East Chicago mayor Anthony Copeland for an emergency declaration, saying the state had already offered enough assistance.

His successor, Gov. Eric Holcomb, signed an executive order declaring a disaster emergency for the USS Lead site February 2017.

executive order
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed an executive order declaring a disaster emergency for the USS Lead Superfund site after outgoing Gov. Mike Pence refused to do so.

Although much of their testimony was based on identifying policies that needed work, McCabe also presented positive policy developments, including adjusted Medicaid funding practices, state lead testing pilot programs, an inventory of daycare facilities for lead risks and progress on a commercially available lead testing kit.

The Indiana Committee said it will issue findings and recommendations in a report to the Commission once all testimony has been received.

The public can submit their own comments to the advisory committee by sending their written comments to by March 27.

Indiana University Experts Testify on State Lead Contamination