The Health Effects of Pollution in Pilsen


Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our first-ever Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen, Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:

Parents gathered in Pilsen on May 11 at the Casa Aztlan Community Center, 1831 S. Racine, to get information on how to try to keep their children safe from lead poisoning and other sources of pollution in the Near Southwest Side neighborhood.

People at the meeting were extremely concerned about lead from the smelter H. Kramer and also about particles and other pollution from the Fisk coal burning power plant. Doctors and city health officials were also there.

Chicago public health department doctor Cortland J. Lohff informed the audience that lead is a dangerous compound that can cause poisoning depending on dosage. Children ages six months to six years old are most likely to get lead poisoning, according to Lohff. When they play in parks and playgrounds where there are high levels of lead in the soil, it can easily get into their systems and cause brain damage and behavioral problems.

Leaders of the group Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) cited statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency showing that H. Kramer emitted 242 pounds of lead in 2009, making it the largest lead emitter in all of Cook County, and the coal plant, owned by Midwest Generation, emitted 149 pounds of lead that year.

Both Fisk and H. Kramer also emit mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and soot. Mercury causes brain damage. Nitrogen oxide causes ozone and sulfur dioxide causes acid rain and also becomes particle matter that contributes to breathing problems including asthma, according to government and other studies.

A study by a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health said the Fisk coal plant and another coal plant nearby in Little Village are linked to 40 premature deaths, 2,600 asthma attacks and 550 emergency room visits per year.

The purpose of the meeting was to raise awareness about these risks and also call for the coal plant and H. Kramer to reduce their emissions. Lohff said he wanted to make sure parents know to get their younger kids tested for lead poisoning.

One mother said she has been in Chicago for years but had no idea what the air, water and soil could be doing to her children and she didn’t know that she should be getting them tested for lead poisoning. She said the meeting helped her understand the effects, which left her “completely stunned.”

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