The Tribune reported in November that the lot had not been cleaned up or fenced off even though the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency had cautioned in 2006 that its testing indicated children could inhale or ingest contaminated soil on their way to and from nearby Walsh Elementary School.
Laboratory testing of soil samples found up to 1,200 parts per million of lead at the former Loewenthal Metals site, an amount three times higher than the federal safety limit for areas where children play. Separate tests with a hand-held screening device registered lead levels as high as 5,500 parts per million, according to a report posted on the EPA's website.
Studies show that even tiny amounts of lead ingested or inhaled can damage the brains of young children and trigger learning disabilities, aggression and criminal behavior later in life. Most scientists say there is no safe level of exposure.
Efforts to prevent lead poisoning are focused mainly on protecting children from exposure to lead paint dust in homes and buildings. The Pilsen site highlights how lead pollution from old factories, combined with decades of exhaust from vehicles that were fueled by leaded gasoline until the mid-1980s, can build up in the top few inches of soil and linger for years.
Federal and state officials have pointed fingers at each other for failing to take action years ago when they discovered the contaminated lot. Their slow reactions outraged community activists in Pilsen, a low-income, largely Latino neighborhood where brick three-flats that survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 are crammed next to factories.
Ald. Danny Solis, 25th, responded to the Tribune's November report by ordering a fence erected around the lot, adding another layer of protection to bilingual warning signs posted by activists.
Lead pollution is a well-known problem in Pilsen. In 2005, a year before state inspectors first tested the Loewenthal Metals site, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization collected soil samples from several yards and parks in the neighborhood and found lead levels that far exceeded the federal cleanup standard for residential areas.
The group's alarming discoveries prompted the federal and state EPAs to file complaints against H. Kramer and Co., a smelter that has been recycling scrap metal since the 1920s and still operates a few blocks west of the former Loewenthal Metals site. On Friday, Kramer agreed to a legal settlement that requires the company spend $3 million on new pollution controls.
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