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Participation still low in blood testing program for Exide neighbors

Community members at a town hall about the Exide plant in October 2013. Local anti-Exide activists have been ambivalent about the program to test people's blood for lead contamination, since there would be no way to connect Exide to any positive results. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Nearly five months into L.A. County's six-month program to test neighbors of Vernon’s troubled Exide battery recycling plant for lead contamination, participation has been extremely low.

Only about 160 people had gotten a blood test as of this week, county officials said, about the same number as had been tested the last time KPCC reported on the program in early July.

“The overall interest in the community hasn’t been what we thought it might be,” said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, the county official overseeing the program.

Indeed, the number of tests conducted represents a tiny fraction of the southeast Los Angeles community living near the Exide facility. In March, the L.A. County Department of Public Health sent notices to 30,000 homes within two miles of the plant, letting people know that free blood tests for lead would be available through September.

To have their blood tested, residents must first request paperwork from the county, which they can then take to one of several private labs the county hired to perform the tests. In addition to the 160 who’d been tested as of this week, another 450 people had requested that paperwork, the county said, also no increase over the figure the county reported in early July.

County officials said in July that of the tests conducted, only one returned an elevated blood lead result. Officials did not provide an update on that case on Tuesday.

The county established the blood testing program after Exide agreed to pay for it as part of a deal it struck with state toxics regulators last year. Regulators had been trying to shut the plant down after it was repeatedly found to be emitting lead and arsenic into the community beyond allowable levels.

But the blood tests were not well received. Community groups campaigning to shut Exide down were ambivalent about them, saying that even if tests did find high levels of lead contamination in people’s bodies, there would be no way to prove that Exide was to blame.

Dr. Rangan said the low participation in the program was "okay," given that the tests were intended only for people who wanted them. But some activists said the county’s own promotion of the program has been lackluster at best.

The 30,000 notices the county mailed to residents made no mention of why the blood tests were being made available. Activist Adelene Vasquez said that in light of that omission, it was no surprise few people had come forward to get tested.

"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.

Dr. Rangan said the county did promote the tests at several community events over the summer, but did not provide a list of those events despite repeated requests.

The county blood lead tests are available through September. A test can be requested by calling the county at (844) 888-2290.