Three months after L.A. County public health officials began offering free blood lead screenings to neighbors of the troubled Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, participation in the program has been scant.
In mid-March, the county mailed notices about the free blood tests to 30,000 homes within a two-mile radius of the plant, which regulators have repeatedly cited for emitting lead above allowable levels. But as of the first week of July, only about 150 people had been tested, according to county officials. Another 450 had requested the paperwork needed to get the test done.
Of the tests completed, only one – an adult’s -- returned a blood lead concentration above five micrograms per deciliter, the level at which the county sends a team out to investigate possible sources of contamination in the home, said Angelo Bellomo, the county's director of environmental health.
"The numbers that have come back so far, they're not above 5, which would give us real cause for concern,” Bellomo said. “They are considerably below five, on average."
The county began offering blood tests after Exide officials agreed to pay for them as part of an October deal the company struck with state toxics regulators, who had been seeking to permanently close the plant over repeated emissions violations. (The plant is currently closed temporarily while regulators decide whether to let it to reopen).
Neighborhood and environmental activists campaigning for Exide’s closure say the county has not done enough to promote the blood tests, but at the same time they have not embraced the effort.
"What does that prove? That we have levels of lead in our blood?” said Milton Nimatuj, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment in Huntington Park, near the Exide plant. “It's really hard to really point it at Exide."
While a blood test may indicate an elevated level of lead, it can’t pinpoint the source of the contamination.
"It doesn't really seem like [something] that we can use in order to keep Exide accountable,” Nimatuj said.
But Bellomo, the county’s environmental health director, said proving Exide is to blame for lead contamination was never the intent of the blood tests. He said regulators already have enough evidence of the plant’s environmental violations to try to force its closure. He said the blood tests are a public health effort.
"We may find in the screening if there are ill children, or there are individuals with elevated blood leads. We need to know that so that we can intervene,” Bellomo said.
Nonetheless, participation has been very low, and the unwillingness of Nimatuj’s and other community groups to promote the tests to their constituents has been only one reason, said Adelene Vasquez, an East Los Angeles anti-Exide activist.
Another, she said, has been the county’s lackluster promotion of the program. The 30,000 notices the county mailed out in March only mentioned that blood tests for lead would be available, but made no mention of Exide’s contamination.
“The fact that they didn’t even put that it's because of Exide, and even a little bit of information on why the blood is being tested, it's not going to raise awareness at all," Vasquez said.
Vasquez said she doesn’t know of anyone who has gotten tested, and said most people in her neighborhood don’t even know the program exists.
Idalmis Vaquero, who lives near the Exide plant and has been campaigning for its closure, said the county’s mailing created no sense of the importance of the blood tests.
"We're just told, oh, you should get lead testing,” she said. “But we're not given the story about why it's important."
Vasquez and Vaquero said they have not yet gotten their blood tested.
Bellomo said the county is working on a plan to increase outreach about the program, though he couldn’t offer details about what that would look like.
The county plans to offer the blood tests through September. Residents who would like a blood lead test can call the county at (844) 888-2290.