Higher levels of lead found in blood of children near Exide plant in Vernon

Children living near a now-closed Vernon battery recycling plant had higher levels of lead in their blood than those living farther away, according to an analysis by California health officials that is certain to increase pressure on state regulators to accelerate a massive cleanup of surrounding neighborhoods.

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.

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FOR THE RECORD

Blood lead levels: An article in the April 9 California section about a state Department of Public Health analysis of areas near an Exide Technologies facility incorrectly said the census tract with the highest percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels was “directly north of the 60 Freeway.” The tract is about one-half mile north of the 60 Freeway. It is bounded by East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, North Gage Avenue, North Indiana Street and Blanchard Street.

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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.”

Twitter: @tonybarboza

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UPDATES

7:16 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with minor editing.

This article was originally published at 2:44 p.m.

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