High Levels of Airborne Toxic Lead – Pilsen Residents Demand Immediate Action

Wednesday April 20 2011

Concerned residents near Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School in Pilsen, 1241 W. 19th St., are demanding immediate action to bring under control high levels of airborne lead reported by the Chicago Tribune April 1. Two local plants are believed to be behind the latest pollution reports. Lead monitors displayed for a year by the Environmental Protection Agency on the roof of the school confirmed what neighbors have known for years: the air they are breathing is toxic.

“As if it wasn’t hard enough to survive in this economy, it turns out our air is also being poisoned,” said Pilsen Alliance organizer Maria Torres. “Certain things are simply not tolerable, toxic air is one of them; enough is enough.”

Among the most important findings, the Tribune reports that average lead levels were at or above federal limits during most of 2010, on three of four three-moth periods. According to the same source, lead pollution exceeded health standards during a fifth of the days monitored, and on one day it climbed more than 10 times higher than the health standard. The only other place in Illinois with chronic lead problems was detected around a plant in Granite City, on the border with Missouri. Out of 15 monitors displayed, the readings at Perez were the highest.

While the readings were taken at the school, this does not mean that the school building itself is contaminated or that the contamination is restricted to the school. The pollution is in the air, and its lead content was measured from the school, serving as a reference point. The radius of the pollution remains unknown.

Neighbors have known for years that significant portions of the community are contaminated with lead and other heavy metals due to years of industrial use in the area. In addition, Pilsen is close to major highways and some of its centenarian housing stock may still contain lead painting. However, while determining the immediate source of pollution remains pending, suspicion points toward two of the biggest industrial sources of the toxic metal in the Chicago area, H. Kramer and Co. smelter and Midwest Generation’s Fisk coal-fired power plant. Both plants are within blocks of Perez Elementary, Benito Juarez H.S., and other schools.

Lead poisoning can cause serious health problems, particularly in young children. Kids are more susceptible to lead poisoning because their growing bodies absorb and retain lead. Unsafe levels of lead in the blood can lead to wide range of symptoms, from headaches and stomach pain to behavioral problems and anemia. Lead poisoning can also severely affect a child’s developing brain.

EPA’s actions and public exposure of this issue has been the result of a long campaign by the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, PERRO, an environmental group in the community. Other organizations supporting the neighbors’ demands besides the Pilsen Alliance include the Healthy Schools Campaign, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Sierra Club and others.

“Now is the time to hold the polluters responsible and stop sacrificing the health of our community’s children,” Torres said. “We need environmental justice now.”

What the Environmental Protection Agency Found in Pilsen’s Air

Lead content in the air was measured for a year by a device placed on the roof of Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School, Throop, in Pilsen, the Chicago Tribune reported on April. The monitor at Perez Elementary was one of 15 placed near factories, steel mills and highways in northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana. The monitor at Perez Elementary recorded the highest readings of all of them.

Other Findings highlighted by the Tribune:

– Average lead levels where at or above federal limits during three quarters of 2010
– Lead pollution exceeded health standards during a fifth of the days monitored
– One day lead pollution climbed more than 10 times higher than the health standard
– Two of the biggest industrial sources of the toxic metal in the Chicago area, H. Kramer and Co. smelter and the Fisk coal-fired power plant, are within blocks of Perez Elementary and Benito Juarez High School.
– The only other place in Illinois with chronic lead problems was detected around a steel mill in Granite City, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Some Facts about Lead Poisoning

What is Lead Poisoning?

Lead Poisoning is a medical condition caused by increased levels of the heavy metal lead in the body.
Lead Poisoning is also known as plumbism, colica Pictonum, saturnism, Devon colic, or painter’s colic.

What does Lead Poisoning Do?
Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and the reproductive and nervous system.
Lead Poisoning is particularly toxic to children because it interferes with the development of the nervous system, causing potentially permanent learning and behavioral disorders.

Symptoms
Symptoms include abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma and death.

Routes of Exposure
Lead contamination can occur through multiple sources, including contaminated air, water, soil, food and consumer products.
One of the largest threats to children is lead paint in many older homes, Occupational exposure is a common cause of lead poisoning in adults.
No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause harm to the body.

How to detect it
High levels of lead in the body can be detected by the presence of changes in blood cells visible with a microscope and dense lines in the bones of children seen on X-ray.
The main tool for diagnosis is measurement of the blood lead level;

Treatment
Different treatments are used depending on the level. The major treatments are removal of the source of lead and chelation therapy (administration of agents that bind lead so it can be excreted).

Source: Wikipedia, under Lead Poisoning. April 11, 2011.

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