Maria Guillen is worried about her 3-year-old grandson, Orlando Rodriguez.
She learned from news reports that recent tests showed elevated levels of lead in the soil around Orlando's East Los Angeles preschool, the Salazar Park Head Start. Lead exposure is known to harm the cognitive development of young children and lower IQs.
“I heard there was a lot of lead in Vernon, but I didn’t think it could get from there to here,” Guillen said as she picked her grandson up from the school late Tuesday morning.
Regulators at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control fear that may be what happened. The Exide battery recycling plant is about a mile south of the preschool.
One soil sample at the school found a lead concentration of 95 milligrams per kilogram. State officials say any level above 80 mg/kg is cause for concern and further testing. Levels above 400 mg/kg pose a hazard to children.
The preschool is run by Volunteers of America out of a brightly painted one-story building in a grassy park.
Company officials said they learned about the test from morning news reports, too. And they haven’t been able to get local or state officials on the phone to confirm the tests.
“First we need to find out ... what’s actually true and what it is we need to do,” said Veronica Lara, chief operating officer of Volunteers of America.
For now, she said the school is taking precautionary measures, including using only bottled water, keeping children away from exposed soil and limiting where they can play.
The California Department of Social Services, which licenses child care and preschool sites, doesn’t require lead testing among its health and safety regulations, according to spokesman Michael Westin.
“We don't have people who can go out there and do soil tests and things like that,” he said. “That would be a function of public health.”
But if toxic substances officials report the levels are unsafe, the department would step in.
“If there’s a significant danger to children, the department has the ability to close the facility,” he said.
Head Start rules don’t require facilities to test for lead on site, either. The program only mandates facilities make sure children receive a lead screening test – either between 1- and 2-years-old or between 3- and 5-years-old.
The blood test is one of several screenings the program has instituted to make sure kids’ development is on track. It’s not designed to identify whether a facility is contaminated, rather to get kids treatment if the child seems to be having a problem.
The park where the preschool is located was one of dozens of properties – including homes – near the Vernon plant where elevated concentrations of lead were found in the soil.
“How are you going to tell children that you can’t play outside, that you can’t have any fruit that touches the ground,” Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, told the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors at a public meeting Tuesday. “You have to wash your hands, and pregnant women shouldn’t go out in the dirt? I mean, this is just ridiculous.”
'At the mercy of state agencies'
County officials are frustrated at what they say is a slow reaction from environmental agencies when it comes to protecting public health.
"We are at the mercy of these state agencies that, unfortunately, are just not moving quick enough to get us in the direction to shut down these toxic facilities," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents the neighborhood where Exide is located. "We have been patient with all of the state agencies, but very frankly, you have a community that is just exhausted and tired of trying to go to every single hearing, do everything they need to do.”
The Board of Supervisors passed a motion on Tuesday, authorizing the creation of a task force to identify ways they can shut down polluters. The “county toxic threat strike team” will identify the 10 communities in the county that are most endangered by toxic pollution - and include members from public health, public works and fire departments, the District Attorney’s office and county counsel.
Exide plant manager John Hogarth told board members his company is just as concerned as they are about the safety of local residents.
“The company is committed. The priority of the [company] is the health of the communities around us and the environment,” Hogarth said.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control has ordered Exide to conduct more tests and given the company two weeks to draft a plan to protect children and pregnant women in the neighboring community from lead poisoning.
Elva Fimbres, who lives in the neighborhood, worries the fruit trees in her yard might be contaminated.
“The authorities need to really investigate where this is coming from,” she said.
Her grandson also attends the Salazar Park preschool. After picking him up Tuesday morning, she took him to the playground next to the school. She said she intends to talk to her daughter about the risk - and wash her grandson's hands really well when they get home.
“This is going to affect their future,” she said.
- Parents concerned about potential lead poisoning, should take their child to a pediatrician for a blood test. Officials said they can get help parents who don’t have health insurance or a pediatrician, including getting them referrals, from the Los Angeles Country Department of Public Health’s lead poisoning hotline: 800-LA-4-LEAD.