EXIDE VERNON BREAKING NEWS – MEDIA ROUNDUP – Analysis finds higher levels of lead in blood of young children living near Exide lead smelter
State environmental officials declined to draw definitive conclusions about the role lead emissions from the plant may have played in the elevated levels, saying the study was not designed to determine the sources of the lead.
The analysis did not measure other potential sources of lead, such as that emitted from cars on nearby freeways or lead paint in homes, said Gina Solomon, deputy secretary for science and health at the California Environmental Protection Agency.
The study was also limited in that it only looked at one year of data, and it involved very small numbers of children in the area closest to Exide, Solomon added.
Those factors “make it hard to draw resounding conclusions” about the relative importance of Exide’s emissions, she said. “We can’t say where the lead in a child’s blood is coming from.”
The analysis will be used “to further target and refine our efforts” to clean up lead from soil at homes in a 1.7-mile radius around the facility, said Ana Mascarenas, assistant director for environmental justice at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Public health researchers analyzed blood tests of nearly 12,000 children under age 6 in an area reaching up to 4.5 miles from the now-closed plant. The tests were from 2012, the Exide facility’s last full year of operation.
Only about 2,000 of the nearly 12,000 children lived in the 1.7-mile cleanup zone, said Solomon.
The analysis found that 3.58 percent of young children living within one mile of Exide had blood lead levels of 4.5 micrograms or more per deciliter of blood. That’s the level the state has set as significantly higher than average and meriting measures to reduce future exposure.
That’s compared with 1.95 percent of children in Los Angeles County overall who showed lead levels of 4.5 micrograms or more in 2012. In the broader study area, reaching out to 4.5 miles from the plant, 2.41 percent of children were in that category, according to the analysis.
But when researchers factored in the age of homes, the picture shifted. Of youngsters living in homes built before 1940, 3.11 percent had elevated blood lead levels, while only 1.87 percent of those living in homes built after 1940 had high levels.
As the analysts adjusted the data to account for other factors, “the effect of age of housing persisted,” while “the effect of distance from Exide diminished greatly,” said Solomon.
And the older the homes, the greater their impact, said Solomon.
The Department of Public Health delved more deeply into this question by performing a sub-study, comparing the ages of the homes of a group of nearly 300 children who had 4.5 micrograms or more with those of a group with lower levels. The researchers found “a very large increased risk” of elevated lead levels for children living in homes built before 1925, she said.
The study found that younger boys were at higher risk as well.
Exide smelted batteries in Vernon until last year, when the state ordered it to shut down after it operated for decades on a temporary permit. At the time, Toxic Substances Control said a few hundred homes closest to the site would be tested and cleaned up. Last August, the agency said up to 10,000 properties could be contaminated in a 1.7-mile radius around the smelter.
The state Legislature is in the process of approving Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for $176.6 million in emergency funding to expedite the testing and cleanup of those properties.
The analysis released Friday by the state Department of Public Health found 3.58% of young children within a mile of the Exide Technologies facility had elevated levels of the poisonous metal in their blood in 2012, compared with 2.41% of children living at a greater distance.
The analysis found 285 children with elevated blood lead levels in southeast Los Angeles County communities near Exide and noted “a moderate increase in risk associated with living less than a mile from the plant.” It also concluded that children living near the facility, about five miles from downtown Los Angeles, were nearly twice as likely to have high blood lead levels as children countywide, where the rate was 1.95%.
State environmental officials emphasized that emissions from the lead-acid battery smelter were not the only contributor to the higher lead levels detected. Exposure to lead-based paint in older homes near the plant also appeared to play a significant role, they said. After controlling for the age of housing and other known risk factors, the effect of living near Exide on children’s blood lead levels was diminished but still detectable, according to the study.
“While there are multiple sources of contamination harming southeast Los Angeles children, this report indicates that those living near Exide face an increased burden of lead, likely associated with the facility,” said Jill Johnston, a USC professor of preventive medicine who studies lead exposure in the affected neighborhoods. “Since any exposure to lead can cause irreversible damage, these results show a critical public health threat in the community.”
In a statement, Exide Technologies said it is studying the analysis and the company “is not surprised to see that the age of the housing stock — indicating the likely presence of leaded paint — is an important predictor of blood lead levels.”
The state’s analysis examined blood test results from 12,000 children living within 4.5 miles of the Exide facility in 2012, the last year it was in full operation. It included only children under age of 6, who are at greatest risk for developmental problems, learning disabilities and other harmful effects of lead.
The state evaluated census tracts across more than half a dozen communities, mapping how many young children in each had levels of 4.5 micrograms of lead or more per deciliter of blood. Officials consider that level to be equivalent to the 5 micrograms per deciliter deemed elevated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State officials, who have faced criticism from lawmakers and health experts for not using such data sooner, said they were concerned by the findings and would use them to help target testing and remediation across an area of 10,000 homes as well as schools, day-care centers and parks.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control is overseeing the cleanup of properties contaminated by decades of air pollution from the facility, which shut down more than a year ago under a deal with federal prosecutors. The closure followed years of emissions violations and concern from community groups and elected officials in the working-class Latino neighborhoods near the plant.
The finding of higher blood-lead levels “is disturbing and requires urgent action,” said U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who represents the Boyle Heights area. “Now more than ever, it’s imperative that the testing and cleanup of all homes surrounding Exide happens quickly.”
The census tract with the highest percentage of children with elevated blood levels in the area studied — 6.09 % — was in East Los Angeles directly north of the 60 Freeway and bounded by East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, Gage Avenue and Indiana Street. Areas of Bell, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood and the unincorporated neighborhood of Walnut Park also had some of the highest lead counts.
Tracts with older housing had higher rates of children with elevated blood lead levels, the analysis found. So did communities to the north and west of the facility.
Lead is a powerful neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure, putting young children who ingest the toxic metal in contaminated soil, dust, water and paint at risk of lifelong developmental and behavioral problems.
The Times reported last month that California officials had data showing elevated lead levels in the blood of hundreds of children near the plant but had not used the information to guide the cleanup of homes and yards that began more than 19 months ago.
Regulators have been using soil sampling results, wind patterns and proximity to the facility, among other criteria, to determine which properties are prioritized for cleanup. But public health experts faulted the state for not also using blood lead data to guide the response, as has been done by authorities in Flint, Mich., and other communities afflicted by lead contamination.
Soil sampling has found that about 99% of homes in the area have lead levels that will require cleanup, with about one-quarter exceeding 1,000 parts per million — the state’s threshold for hazardous waste. So far, about 200 homes of 1,200 tested have been cleaned.
Toxics regulators requested the census-tract-level analysis in September after a series of unsuccessful attempts to obtain blood lead data from state and county health agencies. After criticism from state lawmakers, the state Department of Public Health provided the analysis to the Department of Toxic Substances Control last week.
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed spending $176.6 million to test 10,000 homes within 1.7 miles of the plant and clean the roughly 25% most contaminated properties. Funding legislation is moving its way through the state Legislature after the Brown administration dropped its demand that the cleanup be exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
State Senate Leader Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) said the blood lead analysis will “make sure the $176.6 million in new funding is targeted to the areas of highest need.”
More money will ultimately be needed for completing the cleanup, the largest ever undertaken by the state toxics department. The effort is expected to take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Mark Lopez, who heads the group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said the findings “make our calls for [Department of Toxic Substances Control] to conduct comprehensive soil sampling beyond their 1.7-mile radius much more urgent.”
“As the knowledge of lead poisoning in our communities grows,” Lopez said, “the more we understand and confirm the long-reaching impacts of Exide.”