How Do You Find Out If Your Neighborhood Has Lead Contamination? | WBEZ
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Curious City

How Do You Find Out If Your Neighborhood Is Contaminated With Lead Pollution?

A 2018 Chicago Tribune investigation revealed the ArcelorMittal steel mill in Burns Harbor, Ind. produced more lead emissions than any other industrial source in the country: nearly 18,000 pounds in 2016.

Beth Braun, who grew up in the area, lives just 5 miles from that mill, in the Northwest Indiana community of Chesterton. From her porch, she can see the flames it produces.

“I see the smoke coming up, and then at night, you can see the fire and if there's clouds in the area they just light up,” she says.

In an email, a spokesperson for ArcelorMittal said the company complies with all state and federal standards for lead emissions. In a blog post responding to the Tribune investigation, William Steers, head of corporate responsibility and communications for ArcelorMittal, said the company is “not aware of and do(es) not believe there is data or evidence to suggest that emissions from Burns Harbor are posing a threat to human health through drinking water or other potential paths.”

But Beth, who plans on staying in Chesterton even though the steel mill is nearby, is concerned the lead pollution might be landing in her backyard.

So she came to Curious City with a question:

How can I find out if my neighborhood is contaminated with lead from the steel mill emissions?

To help Beth find an answer, we paired her with an environmental researcher who has helped hundreds of people like Beth test the soil in their yards and the dust inside their homes. We documented the journey — and her results — in the video below:

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More about our questioner

Beth Braun, 25, lives in Chesterton, a suburb near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. She likes her town because it’s quiet, comfortable and has nice vegan restaurants.

Beth was born and raised in this part of Northwest Indiana.

“I lived here, grew up here and I’m probably going to die here,” she says with a laugh. “I love it here, and that's why I wanted to reach out to Curious City.”

In August of 2018, she read the investigation by Michael Hawthorne in the Chicago Tribune and she says she was particularly concerned that regulators did not know where the pollution might be landing.

The Burns Harbor steel mill employs more than 3,000 people, and Beth knows a lot of the workers live around her neighborhood. She says she doesn’t want anyone to lose their job, but she is hoping that the lead pollution can be reduced.

“I'm hoping that one small person like me trying to reach out to other people can make more awareness and maybe make some sort of change, at least in this small town,” she says.  

Kevin Stark is a Chicago-based reporter. You can follow him@StarkKev. Special thanks to Kari Lydersen and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

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