A couple of years ago, Carver Primary School Principal Linda Randolph began to get a little winded climbing stairs and walking to and from the three primary buildings that she oversees. At first, she suspected it might be because she’d gained a little weight. When the problem persisted, she went to the doctor, who told her that she had developed a respiratory problem and suggested she use an inhaler.
It’s a common problem in Altgeld and Randolph is not alone. Both she and the principal at Carver Middle School say many of their students suffer from chronic respiratory ailments such as asthma, which adds up to missed school days and more difficulty concentrating on academics. Yet the problem can’t be quantified because few children have private doctors and complete medical records.
Residents and advocates blame Altgeld Garden’s neighbors, a mix of industrial plants, abandoned factories, toxic waste dumps, landfills and a sanitary waste site.
“Just pick your poison,” says Avis Jenkins from Hope Worldwide-Illinois, a non-profit organization that works with disadvantaged youth. “There are steel mills, a water reclamation plant [and] factories.”
“This is a heavily contaminated area and a lot of contaminates are airborne,” says Cheryl Johnson, a community activist. “Most of the smokestacks in this area blow right into this southeast corner.”
Johnson, who along with her mother, Hazel Johnson, runs People for Community Recovery, a grassroots community-based environmental group, says soil in the area has been contaminated since the 1800s, when railroad car magnate George Pullman used it as a dumping ground.
Randolph says the polluted air scares off teacher prospects. “I hate interviewing in the summer because of the horrible smell. I always hope for rain. I had one prospective teacher say, ‘You are all out here to die.’ Well, I didn’t expect to hear from her again.”
(Despite concerns about students absent from school, last year attendance rates for Carver Primary and Middle schools were about the same as the district average for elementary schools, 93 percent. Carver Military posted a rate that was two points higher than the high school average of 87 percent.)
Asthma and other respiratory illnesses have an adverse impact on learning, says Marian Brynes of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, who taught in public schools for 22 years. Kids are lethargic and may find it hard to concentrate, she notes.
“We see a fair number of children with asthma, bronchitis and emphysema,” says Pamela Cole, a physician and medical director at the TCA health care center that serves Altgeld residents. “The quality of the air is not good because of the nearby paint factory and the dumps.”
Last year, the clinic treated 276 children—infants to 18-year-olds—for asthma. This year, it has treated 133 since January.
Says Johnson, “The city doesn’t care about the soil contamination out here. The city is not doing anything about it, because it would be a liability.”
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