This can never happen again.
April 9, 2021
I moved into the West Calumet Housing Complex in 2004, when my youngest son was less than a month old. But it wasn’t until 2016 that I found out the home I lived in was poisoning my children.
When I read about the new Inspector General report describing how the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did not tell parents like me that our homes in East Chicago, Indiana, were poisoning our kids with lead, I was sickened all over again.
According to a new report, HUD did not follow their own policies to evaluate the contamination between 2003 and 2005. But this was five years after a 1998 government study found that 30% of kids at West Calumet were lead-poisoned.
Turns out, the report doesn’t tell me and my neighbors anything new. The report says that HUD and other agencies “missed opportunities” to identify the lead and arsenic contamination at the West Calumet Housing Complex.
How could the Inspector General describe HUD’s failure to prevent the poisoning of families like mine as “missed opportunities”? His report doesn’t discuss at all the opportunities our children are missing due to permanent lead damage, or what anyone is going to do to address our children’s health issues, or prevent this from happening to another community.
When the West Calumet Housing Complex was built in the early 1970s, they called us Negros and said they picked this place because it was the cheapest, least desirable land.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), HUD, the housing authority, the city, the state: None of them did anything to inform the people who live at West Calumet that it was dangerous. And none of them are making sure the children get the ongoing health and educational support that they need.
I learned about the contamination for the first time in a letter from the mayor saying that we had to move. Sampling done later inside my home and surrounding soil showed extreme levels of lead and arsenic, which cause learning and behavioral issues in children and long-term health impacts. Considering that the level of lead was 225 times the amount of lead that the EPA considered necessary to clean up, I was very worried for my sons.
Experts say the first five years of a child’s life are the most important for their development. Experts also say no amount of lead is safe. Now I know my kids and my neighbors didn’t have a chance. The water, the air, the soil and dust in West Calumet poisoned their developing brains. And now, we are living with irreversible damage.
I started noticing learning delays in my son when he was about two years old. While in preschool, I could tell that he wasn’t retaining information like my other sons had. Meanwhile, the health department never told me about the lead in his body. It was so common that it was not considered important. I didn’t find out that he was lead poisoned until 2016, after I pushed the health department to release the files.
Testing showed my son’s blood had elevated levels of lead. He now has multiple permanent health conditions caused by the lead poisoning, including ADHD, asthma, and allergies. I see so many other kids like him in East Chicago who still aren’t getting the help they need.
In response to HUD failing us for more than 40 years, this new report offers only four simple recommendations that barely scratch the surface of the problem. Meanwhile, HUD is still moving people into dangerously polluted homes and not following up on residents’ health issues — even after they have been harmed.
The only other option HUD has offered is to get rid of public housing all together, which displaces families and communities. When the housing authority was moving us out of West Calumet, all 1,100 residents were searching for housing with Section 8 vouchers at the same time. We had nowhere to go because so many landlords don’t take Section 8.
The OIG report says that EPA identified 7,676 housing developments across the country on or near extremely contaminated land, also known as Superfund sites, and provided this information to HUD. From there, HUD decided to focus on only seven sites.
But I cannot help but wonder if anyone is telling the residents of those seven sites whether they have been poisoned or are still at risk. What about the thousands of other housing developments that HUD and EPA have not addressed? Are people renting poisonous homes without knowing it?
I advised on a recent report providing meaningful recommendations to prevent other communities from suffering like East Chicago. For starters, HUD and EPA must tell all residents in a community about the nearby contamination, the seriousness of the risk, and steps that can be taken to reduce the exposure.
Community members must have a say in all decisions about the cleanup and efforts to protect residents. Tenants shouldn’t be forced to pay rent to live on contaminated land. Every Superfund site should have an emergency assistance fund for the families, paid for by the polluters.
HUD and EPA need to learn from the way they hurt my family and others who lived in the West Calumet Housing Complex and who still live in other homes on the Superfund site in East Chicago. There are no more excuses to ignore the health of families.
The Biden Administration has called environmental justice and racial justice among their top priorities. One place to start is fixing the toxic legacy caused by building public housing on poisonous land.