Let me ask you something: If the air breathed by children attending an American elementary school was contaminated by lead levels so high that it could damage their brains, and cause them life-long learning disabilities, how long would you say their parents should have to wait until that air was cleaned-up? How long would you be willing to wait, if it was your child?
A day? A week? A month?
How about 6 years?
That’s right, 6 years. As the compelling stories written by the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne show, here’s what’s going on in the Pilsen community, a largely low-income, Latino neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. This past April, federal, state and local government learned that the levels of lead measured at the local Perez Elementary School–attended daily by 500 children–was at or above federal limits during three three month periods in 2010…….that lead levels exceeded federal health standards on fully 20% of the days measured…..and that, on one day, these levels measured more than TEN TIMES the federal limit [see these Chicago Tribune articles by Michael Hawthorne dated June 15, 2011 and April 1, 2011]. And our government says that it knows where most of this lead is coming from–the smelter operated by a company known as “H.K. Kramer & Co.”, less than 2 blocks away, whose annual sales are reported to be more than $10,000,000 [according to Cortera].
How bad is this level of lead for those elementary school kids? Really bad. For starters, there is no “safe” level of lead for kids to breathe. Studies show that even tiny amounts of lead entering the body can damage the brains of young children, and trigger learning disabilities, aggression and criminal behavior later in life.
So, given the staggering dangers posed to these kids by the lead in the air they are breathing at a school that they have no choice but to attend, you would think that our laws would be set up to protect them, and force a rapid clean-up. But they are not. In fact, they are set up to let polluters like H.K Kramer take their sweet time. Under those polluter-friendly laws, Illinois environmental officials will have two years before they have to decide how much H.K. Kramer should reduce (not even fully clean up, mind you) this lead pollution. These same officials will then have until 2017 – – 6 years from now – – to make sure that H.K. Kramer has reduced lead levels like it will have been told to do. And if we get to 2017, and H.K. Kramer hasn’t done what it has been told to do? Then, the school children of Pilsen will just have to trust that the state officials who sauntered through the previous 6 years will suddenly treat their plight with urgency. One might tell the Pilsen children to not hold their breath on this….but then, they are probably holding their breath right now….because they have to. There’s so much lead in the air.
Recent news stories chronicle how so much of our country’s wealth and economic power has become concentrated in the hands of a very few people and corporations. The Pilsen story painfully demonstrates how that enormous power disparity plays out in the writing of our environmental laws. The children of Pilsen did not have anyone speaking for them when the laws were written about how much time government officials and polluters would have to clean up pollution. Government and the polluters acted essentially as one in crafting laws that ensured that neither of them would have to move very fast, or spend very much money, on cleaning up the air in places like Pilsen.
And evidently neither of them noticed how cruel it would be to take 6 years to clean up pollution that can ruin a child’s life in 6 hours.