Health

Wider Exide contamination hasn't sparked more blood lead tests

Toxics regulators announced an additional $7 million for testing and cleanup in an expanded area around the now-closed Exide plant in Vernon, but it did little to mute criticisms from activists who say that lead contamination should be prompting faster response.
Toxics regulators announced an additional $7 million for testing and cleanup in an expanded area around the now-closed Exide plant in Vernon, but it did little to mute criticisms from activists who say that lead contamination should be prompting faster response.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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The recent news that many more homes than previously thought are possibly contaminated around the former Exide battery recycling plant has sparked a lot of concern in the surrounding community. But so far the news has not ignited greater interest in a free program to test residents' blood for lead.

Community members say few have gotten the test because it can't detect long-term exposure and many people are unaware of the effort.

Los Angeles County launched the blood lead testing program in April 2014 for residents within a three-mile radius of the now shuttered Vernon plant; that includes the latest expanded area of concern. The initiative was part of a settlement with Exide that required the company to provide enough money to fund the tests for at least five years. 

So far only about 600 people – including 100 children - have been tested since the program began. That number hasn’t budged since the spring. To date, no one has shown levels that would require medical treatment, according to the county, which adds that another 1,200 people have requested lab slips but have not yet gotten tested. 

Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia as well as kidney and brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead affects children more than adults; it can damage a young person's nervous system and cause mental retardation. The CDC also notes that lead in a pregnant woman's body can harm the fetus, affecting behavior and intelligence.

"How long do we have to wait?"

Dozens of angry community members showed up at a recent meeting in Huntington Park called by state and local agencies following the revelation that as many as 10,000 homes - not the roughly 200 previously identified - have been contaminated by lead from Exide's operations. 

Residents worried about how much toxic material they’ve been exposed to over the years, and demanded faster action to clean up the community. 

Terry Cano of Boyle Heights, said she’s been waiting months to have her yard cleaned.

"No matter what is in that soil it is a result of your failure to monitor and keep us safe," she told the panel. "This is ridiculous; how long do we have to wait?"

Many at the meeting said the main reason people aren’t getting the blood test is due to its inability to detect lead exposure dating back more than a month. 

"Basically the reason why people are not going to get their blood tested is because it's not going to prove anything," said Teresa Marquez, who lives in Boyle Heights and is on the Exide cleanup community advisory board. 

Cyrus Rangan oversees the program for the L.A. County Department of Public Health. He acknowledges that the test just provides a snapshot, but he says it’s still important.

"Our stance is this: We want to have the blood lead testing available so people can know what their current lead status is," says Rangan, director of the county’s bureau of toxicology and environmental assessment. "But everyone in this entire community surrounding Exide should be under the presumption that they have been exposed to all of the chemicals that have been coming out of this facility for the past several decades."

No more playing in the yard

Miguel Angel Dominguez of Boyle Heights and his family are among the few who have been tested. They live in the shadow of the plant and his yard has already been dug up and replaced.

Dominguez says the county sent him his family's test results and said everyone is okay, but he is not convinced.

"In reality, you just don’t understand," he says. "Even though they say this number means this or that. We just don’t know."

Like many others in the community, Dominguez says he doesn’t let his kids hang out in his yard.

"When we noticed what was going on, we moved our youngest kids out of the area to my mother-in-law's house," he says.

Dominguez periodically sends his three kids back to their grandmother's house because cleanup is continuing in the neighborhood.

Activists say another reason so few people have taken the test is because the county’s public relations effort has been less than robust.

"Often we see a lack of effort in outreaching to our communities on a number of issues," says Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "What work is being done to mobilize our communities to get blood samples?"

Rangan said the county has sent mailers to between 20,000 and 30,00 homes, encouraged people to participate during community meetings and put up fliers in the neighborhood. 

Another option: teeth

But even if many more people take the test there’s still the problem that it can only detect exposure in the previous month.

Miguel Dominguez says the county should do more.

"That is not sufficient, you must do tests that are more intense, more internal," he says.

In fact, Lopez of East Yard Communities says there is a way to find out if a person has had longer-term exposure to lead.

"If we really want to understand what the effects have been over time, teeth is where we can look," he says.

When a person absorbs, breathes or swallows lead, almost all of it ends up collecting in the teeth and bones, according to the CDC.

Lopez says his group is partnering with researchers from USC to collect baby teeth from kids in the area around the old Exide plant to get a better picture of lead exposure in the community.