CHICAGO (CBS) — It has been a summertime gathering spot in Hegewisch for more than half a century, but beginning Tuesday, the Little League field in the neighborhood became an active Environmental Protection Agency cleanup site.

It is all because of dangerous amounts of arsenic and lead in the soil. And as CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported, Little League families are understandably distraught.

Generations of kids in Hegewisch have learned to play baseball on the fields at 12710 S. Carondolet Ave. But about half of the baseball diamond and the outfield tested for positive arsenic and lead levels that were so high that they qualified for immediate removal.

Gavin Demkowicz, 12, has spent about half of his life on the Hegewisch Little League Field – about six or seven years.

“I play first base, but this year, they’re trying to put me in outfield,” he said.

His uncle Daniel Ralich did the same, about 25 years ago as a pitcher.

“I played baseball most of my life,” Ralich said.

And grandpa Yogi Ralich has been watching from the stands.

“It’s just one big toxic waste over there, what it looks like,” Yogi Ralich said.

Yogi Ralich said he had been contacting the city about pollution concerns in the highly industrial area for years. But it wasn’t until January 2019 that local lawmakers asked the EPA to do a soil sampling.

The agency found unacceptable levels of lead and arsenic.

“You know, they slide in there. They fall. You know, they get dirty, rub their faces,” Yogi Ralich said. “These are little kids.”

A mailer alerted the families in this area to the time-critical cleanup, which started Tuesday.

“I got angry, you know, and everyone can point fingers at everyone else but who’s actually going to take the blame?” Daniel Ralich said.

“They knew this stuff was on the ground,” Yogi Ralich added.

What’s more concerning is that they haven’t gotten any information about possible health impacts. So we asked EPA on-scene coordinator Kristina Miller for them.

Hickey: “Lead and arsenic. What do you say to parents that have health concerns for their kids?”

Miller: “They can reach out to the health department, or they can also reach out to their doctors if they have individual questions. They are the health experts They’re the ones that ho know their kids the best, so they should reach out to them.”

Miller said me the field, which has been there since at least 1964, was built on top of industrial waste. She said the expedited, nearly $700,000 clean up qualified for federal funding.

The season had already been postponed because of COVID-19.

“It’s just like one thing after another,” Gavin said. “We’re not going to be able to play baseball.”

The cleanup should take about 20 business days.

There were dust monitors on the field earlier Tuesday who will be monitoring air quality throughout the project.

So is there a potential health concern for these kids right now? We have not really gotten an answer to that question, and we are awaiting a response from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The EPA did say it was the soil that was contaminated, not the grass, and there is a fair amount of grass that could have served as a barrier. But again, the EPA advised that parents should consult their family’s primary care physicians if they have any questions.

The agency released a statement on the matter:

IDPH reviewed the soil sampling data that USEPA collected from the Hegewisch Little League Field. The highest levels of arsenic and lead were detected in right field. Elsewhere, arsenic and lead levels were less than the health-based screening values we use and the Lead Poisoning Prevention Code’s regulatory limit for lead in bare soil accessible to children. 

Young children who play in bare soil with the highest level of arsenic detected on the field every day for a year or more have an increased risk for related health effects, such as thickening of the skin, similar to calluses, numbness or “pins and needles” sensations in the hands and feet, abnormal heart rhythms, and an increased risk for certain cancers. Lead exposure can impair normal cognitive development, which can lead to learning disabilities and behavioral issues. 

Little League baseball players who only play or practice on the field several days per week during the summer would have a lower risk of experiencing these health effects due to the amount of time they spend on the field. Additionally, the outfield grass would lessen the potential for direct contact with soil or inhaling dust. 

Parents and coaches can encourage their kids to wash their hands before eating snacks in the dugout or when they come home from playing on the field. They should also remove their playing shoes and uniforms when they come home to reduce the amount of soil tracked indoors. Parents can ask their child’s pediatrician to screen for lead and arsenic, if their children have played on this field.

Megan Hickey