Michael Alva remembers playing at the neighborhood metal processing plants as a boy in the South Los Angeles city of Paramount.
"We would jump in these bins and we would swim in metal," says Alva, now 52. "And then we would box the metal shavings and we would bring it home and it was all over us. It looked like diamonds and we would play pirate ships."
Alva lives on Jefferson Street, where he grew up. His small house, lit up for Christmas, stands out from the industrial businesses that surround it.
Today, he sees the businesses not as his playground, but as a constant threat to his health. He says he can always tell when the nearby metal processors are, in his words, "cooking."
"It burns my throat, it burns my eyes, it goes into your mouth and you ... can taste the metal," he says. "And it doesn't stop. It goes for hours."
Since late October, the South Coast Air Quality Management has been investigating extremely high levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium in Paramount. The agency has identified at least two metal processing firms that it says are responsible.
On Wednesday, the air district's hearing board will consider ordering the companies to stop the operations resulting in the emissions.
But for longtime residents like Alva, hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, is just the latest toxic threat to their health.
"It has to be the air"
The nearby facilities' fumes are especially oppressive for Alva. He says he developed severe asthma as a child. By age 28, he says, he'd been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
To breathe, he needs an inhaler, a nebulizer and an oxygen tank.
Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling smoke, second-hand smoke, or chemicals in the workplace, according to the American Lung Association. But Alva says his doctors believe his environment caused his illness.
There are about 80 metal processors in this city of less than five square miles, according to the AQMD.
"It has to be where you live," Alva recalls his doctors telling him. "It has to be the air that you're breathing. People just don't get COPD. And they don't get it at such an early age."
Alva says some of his nieces and nephews have asthma. His cousin, Laurie Guillen, says a lot of people in Paramount have COPD. And, she says, the city's residents suffer from more than breathing problems.
"Their loved ones have passed away from lung cancer, rare cancers," says Guillen, a leader of the community group Concerned Paramount Residents Fight Pollution. "But when they'd go seek medical attention they'd say, 'this is a really rare cancer. Have you been a coal miner? Have you worked in metal?'"
A lack of scientific tools
It's extremely difficult to prove what's making people sick, especially when it comes to cancer.
Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of toxicology and environmental assessment the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, says scientists don't currently have the tools to determine exactly what caused someone's cancer.
"So in other words, if you have lung cancer, it could've come from a number of different causes," Rangan says. "But there is very little I can do to look at your particular lung cancer and determine whether or not it came from the environment."
But Rangan says there is a proven link between pollution and respiratory illnesses like asthma and COPD.
"Conditions like that, they absolutely could be caused or made worse by living very close to industrial facilities in a place like Paramount," he says.
"How much longer will I have?"
These facilities and illnesses have been in Paramount for a long time.
Three years ago, people raised alarms about a cancer cluster at a local school. There have been federal and state investigations into possible toxic pollution.
The AQMD's recent discovery of unsafe levels of chromium 6 once again sparked more investigations.
The agency has concluded that two Paramount metal processing firms - Aerocraft Heat Treating Co. and Anaplex Corp. – are the sources of at least some of the chromium emissions in the area.
The air district's hearing board will consider on Wednesday whether to order the two companies to cease any noncompliant operations, reduce chromium 6 emissions and perform mitigation to come into compliance with air quality rules. Both the AQMD and the companies will present their cases during the meeting.
All of this reinforces Michael Alva's dilemma. He wants to live close to his extended family, but he knows the pollution in his hometown is wreaking havoc on his fragile health. Alva did move away to Azusa a number of years ago, but he recently returned.
"It's that battle between, if I stay here, how much longer will I have, or is it best that I move, and not be around my family, and be lonely and depressed?" he says. "It's very hard for me to make that decision."
Update: One Paramount firm has agreed to a plan to reduce chromium 6 emissions. The South Coast Air Quality Management District was still in talks with the other firm in question.