Health

Los Angeles County, community team up for huge Exide outreach push

Boyle Heights activist Teresa Marquez urged her neighbors near the former Exide Technologies plant to speak with the outreach workers.
Boyle Heights activist Teresa Marquez urged her neighbors near the former Exide Technologies plant to speak with the outreach workers.
Rebecca Plevin/KPCC

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The Los Angeles County Health Agency is teaming up with community groups for a huge effort to alert people living near the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon about the dangers of lead exposure and to survey them about their health.

On Saturday, more than 1,500 agency employees and local volunteers plan to knock on the doors of more than 20,000 homes near the facility. They'll reach out to residents of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East L.A., Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon.

The effort comes as the state Department of Toxic Substances Control is expected to release its final plan for an expanded cleanup of lead from properties in a 1.7-mile radius around the plant. That work is slated to begin this summer and could include thousands of homes.

At each home, the outreach workers will explain how people can minimize their exposure to lead. They will also gather information about residents' health concerns and help connect them to services, including free blood lead screening.

Boyle Heights activist Teresa Marquez urged her neighbors to speak with the outreach workers.

"Open the door to the health department and let them know the illness in your family," including any maladies doctors can't explain, she said at  a news conference Wednesday.

County health officials say the results of the health survey should help inform Toxic Substances Control as it proceeds with the lead remediation. 

The county Department of Public Health must "work together with the community to make sure that cleanup plan is effective and that it’s expedited in its implementation, so we can ... ensure that the community will get the health attention that they require," said Angelo Bellomo, the department's deputy director for health protection.

The county is also undertaking this outreach because many renters have moved into the neighborhood and might not know about the soil contamination, said Department of Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer.

Boyle Heights resident Terry Cano welcomed the outreach effort.

"My house is a toxic waste site," she said, noting that her brother has terminal cancer. "This has destroyed my family." It's extremely hard to determine whether a particular type of pollution caused someone's cancer.

Lead is a neurotoxin and is especially dangerous for children. It has been linked to damaged nervous systems, slow growth and development, learning and behavior problems and hearing and speech impairments. There is no safe level of lead for children.

During its three decades of operation, the Exide plant spewed chemicals into the air, including lead, which settled into nearby yards, playgrounds and gardens.

The state originally required soil testing and cleanup only in neighborhoods adjacent to the plant. But Gov. Jerry Brown last April signed emergency legislation approving an infusion of $176.6 million to test for and remove lead from thousands of properties in the expanded 1.7-mile radius.