(This piece was originally published on October 7, 2018 by the Northwest Indiana Times.)

A free soil testing day is set for Saturday for residents who may have noticed U.S. EPA removing contaminated soil from around homes in East Chicago, Hammond and Whiting and have concerns about their own yards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began an extensive cleanup in 2016 of the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago’s Calumet section.

The federal agency in April authorized additional funding for the emergency removal of the most contaminated soil from around homes occupied by sensitive populations, such as children and pregnant women, living near the former Federated Metals site in the Robertsdale neighborhood of Hammond and Whiting. As of Oct. 5, the agency had excavated and backfilled soil at 16 properties, an EPA spokeswoman said.

The agency sampled 23 properties near the Niagara LaSalle facility at 1412 150th St. in Hammond in September 2017 and found elevated lead levels at eight of them, an EPA spokeswoman said. Lead levels exceeded 400 parts per million at seven properties. EPA found lead levels above 1,200 ppm at the final property, though it was not occupied by any known sensitive populations.

The sampling area was expanded for another sampling event in September, EPA said. Results from those samples have not yet been validated.

EPA plans to sample residential properties within a half-mile radius of the former Metals Refining facility at 1723 Summer St. in November.

Urban kids face greater risks

Exposure to any level of lead is dangerous, particularly for children and pregnant women. Lead poisoning can lead to permanent learning and behavior difficulties and health ailments.

Exposure to lead is cumulative, so children face greater health risks when they live in older homes with lead paint and lead drinking water pipes and older neighborhoods where soil is contaminated with lead from turn-of-the-century industrial facilities.

In an effort to help residents in northern Lake County better understand the health risks they may face from past and current industrial contamination, the Hoosier Environmental Council and East Chicago/Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group have partnered with experts from Valparaiso University, Notre Dame University and Purdue University to offer a free XRF testing day from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy, 1402 E. Chicago Ave. in East Chicago.

The XRF testing method delivers immediate results for residents who bring samples to the event.

Professors Julie Peller and Chris Iceman of Valparaiso University said they’ve been working with Sam Henderson, a staff attorney at the Hoosier Environmental Council, for about two years to help fill in knowledge gaps and respond to concerns voiced by residents.

The Saturday event will be the second XRF testing day the professors have offered.

“We’re just trying to help out and utilize our expertise and available instrumentation,” Peller said.

Filling the knowledge gap

Soil in Northwest Indiana can present researchers with a puzzle because of the various materials used to fill the swale portions of the native dune and swale habitat.

“We’ve seen hotspots within feet of each other,” Iceman said. “Even in a Baggie sample, we can take some dirt out of the bag and analyze it and put it back in and take it out and analyze it again and get a different results.”

For example, it likely wasn’t uncommon for industrial facilities to place contaminated soil along a road with a “free dirt” sign.

“We don’t know the history over the past century of where and when that happened,” Iceman said. “That contributed to the issues we’re trying to deal with now.”

The professors can analyze samples for 20 to 25 metals, though they will look primarily for lead and arsenic because those are an issue of concern for many residents.

There are about 10 metals that are high target concerns, Iceman said.

Residents will receive their results the same day, along with guidance on levels of concerns and how to mitigate health risks.

Residents with small children are especially encouraged to participate, Iceman said.

“Just showing up is fine,” he said. “Bring patience with you. We’re definitely going to do the best job we can to get to everybody.”

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