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Environment/Sustainability Mon Apr 18 2011

Pilsen Residents Lead on Lead

by Cali Slaughter

Online resources providing protection tips against lead poisoning recommend isolating children from sources of lead. As a rule of thumb, this entails opting out of locating the nursery in the room with peeling paint from forty-years ago or choosing to plant grass over lead-saturated soil instead of turning it into the sandbox (the latter typically involving the consumption of large quantities of sand in the form of mud pies.) Recommendations for protecting against lead include efforts as minimal as using duct tape or contact-paper to cover a lead-paint section of the house.

What about when your exposure to lead emanates from a non-isolatable source, let's say, when it saturates your neighborhood from a remote location through our most precious and fundamental compound - the air we breathe? How do we place a shield between ourselves and some as yet unknowable source? Should we duct tape or contact-paper our power plants, construction sites and areas of high traffic?

Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood on Chicago's southwest side, can't afford the infrastructure involved in a mass duct taping project, nor would it look very pretty. Yet Pilsen's air quality, as measured by the EPA air monitor perched atop Perez Elementary School, falls well below the new standard for clean, lead-free air set by the EPA in 2008.

It all started back in January 2010 when the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O.),, harangued the EPA into placing a monitor on the Perez school. According to Brad Frost, the Community Relations representative for the Illinois EPA, in 2010 alone this monitor recorded 11 instances in which lead concentration in the air was too high, at one point skyrocketing up to 10 times the federal limit. Would it be prudent at this point to mention that low-income communities are four times as likely to suffer from lead poisoning than average- and higher-income communities? Could this have anything to do with the pattern of concentrating some of Chicago's worst polluters in low-income neighborhoods?

Frost explained that airborne lead has a lower impact on levels of lead in the blood, than say, eating paint chips or lead-infused mud pies. Nonetheless, in 2008 the EPA drastically increased its standards for measuring airborne lead concentration, as a result of the realization that lead in the air unnecessarily contributes to an already nasty situation of highly accessible lead sources in our water pipes, soil and walls.

The EPA has no idea where Pilsen's airborne lead situation originates. Frost explained that there are roughly 150 possible sources of lead emissions in the air within a three-mile radius of Perez Elementary, which he vaguely claims the EPA is looking into. The elephant in the room appears to be Fisk and H. Kramer,, a power plant and smelter respectively, each responsible for pumping 149 and 242 tons of lead into the air in 2009 alone. These industry giants possess abysmal track records in terms of their emissions and are cozily nestled within a five-block radius of the school. Both these facilities face violations of the federal Clean Air Act and have fallen under the scrutiny of Chicago's Clean Power Ordinance. Frost states that while these facilities are certainly potential culprits, there are most likely a handful of sources, ranging from construction projects to areas of heavy traffic.

In the meantime, another monitor was placed on the roof of Benito Juarez Community Academy in March and will be checked every 3 days. Frost explained that these two schools provide ideal locations, as they sandwich Fisk and will give a more accurate idea of whether this is where the airborne lead derives. The sheer fact that two schools are the closest public institutions on which lead monitors can be installed to measure Pilsen's largest polluters is a pathetic reflection of city planning priorities, and worthy of its own article.

Apparently, Alderman Solis plans to respond to the voice of Pilsen's concerned residents. In response to the EPA's shocking lead findings, he promises to push through a new ordinance that will force all Chicago industries emitting lead to measure the exact amount put into our air. One thing we can count on Solis for is powerful connections, so we might just see this ordinance materialize.

Unfortunately, the struggle to identify from where and why Pilsen has experienced abnormally high levels of airborne lead will require patience instead of duct tape. It will take time for the EPA to detect reliable patterns between wind direction and the monitor's lead spikes. In the meantime, we can thank grassroots organizers, like those in P.E.R.R.O., who shoved this issue into the spotlight and forced the EPA to take action. Residents of Pilsen and the surrounding area would do well to follow the standard set by P.E.R.R.O, without which this issue would not be so google-able today. Bother the EPA until answers are given. Check their website for information that they have promised to release in the next week concerning the Juarez monitor. Make it known that air quality in Pilsen is something worth being pesky about. Lastly, don't forget to duct tape over that peeling paint in the back room.

Cali Slaughter is a free lance journalist and ghostwriter in Chicago

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