Ever since Plato Products Inc. moved its metal-plating plant from El Monte to a Glendora location along the San Dimas city limits in 1984, residents here have worriedly questioned whether emissions from the plant posed a health hazard.
Now the county Department of Health Services is about to provide some answers.
In a report expected to be released this week, epidemiologists say that they have found no increased incidence of miscarriages, birth defects or other adverse effects among residents of nearby housing tracts. Almost all of the housing near the plant is in San Dimas.
"We don't have any evidence that anyone's getting sick out there," said Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the department's toxics and epidemiology program. "I think it's fair to reassure people."
The health department's inquiry was prompted last summer by reports of four miscarriages by women living in neighborhoods near the plant. About the same time, tests by the South Coast Air Quality Management District disclosed that the plant was emitting hexavalent chromium--a known carcinogen--in concentrations that violated air-quality standards.
Last month, an AQMD hearing board granted Plato a variance to continue operating until next October, while the firm installs a filtering system that would trap 99.5% of the hexavalent chromium released during the metal-plating process.
If the system works, the cancer risk would be reduced to less than one additional case per million people exposed to the toxin continuously over 70 years, a level within the air-pollution agency's guidelines. According to AQMD computer models, the current level is 10 times as high--10 cases per million.
In studying reports of health problems among people in surrounding neighborhoods, researchers found that the rates of miscarriages, birth defects, headaches, nausea and eye, throat and lung irritations in the three years since Plato opened the plant was no greater in San Dimas than in other areas.
"We couldn't distinguish the rates from what we would normally have as background rates," Papanek said. "The doses (of hexavalent chromium) that produce birth defects are a good thousand times the level you'd expect to see around Plato."
'People Badly Misinformed'
The report was viewed by Plato officials as proof that the plant's potential health risks have been overstated by residents who vigorously oppose the facility.
"That's what I expected," said Plato President George M. Kent. "It's been my feeling that the people have been badly misinformed as to health hazards."
That view is shared by Sharon Scott, a newly elected member of the Bonita Unified School District's Board of Trustees, which serves San Dimas and La Verne. Parents of children attending Arma J. Shull Elementary School--situated next door to the plant--have been panicked by concern about potential health risks, Scott said, and she has spent much of her first month on the school board working to calm those fears.
To dispel the misinformation that she said has spread through the community, Scott has scheduled a meeting Jan. 19 at Shull School, at which Papanek and AQMD pollution control engineers will answer parents' questions about toxic emissions from the plant.
"The most important thing is for the community to understand that these health risks do not exist," Scott said. "I don't think anybody's going to be convinced until they hear the information from the professionals."
Scott said she first became aware of the depth of parents' fears about the plant while campaigning for the school board. After attending last month's AQMD hearing board meeting, at which board members characterized the health threat from Plato as "more perception than reality," Scott dedicated herself to changing those perceptions.
"It was really distressing to hear the fears of the parents in that area," Scott said. "The fear was just being magnified because there were no real solid facts or boundaries to contain the panic."
The fear bred by uncertainty about whether the plants' emissions pose a grave danger to schoolchildren and pregnant women "could be just as dangerous, if not more so, than the health hazard itself," she went on.
"I think there seems to be a temporary sense of relief that the meeting is going to happen," Scott said. "I would like to see it as the beginning of leaving this entire issue behind us."
Protest Leader Unsatisfied
However, Jeff Schenkel is not at all relieved by Scott's efforts. The father of two children at Shull School, Schenkel has led the residents' campaign against Plato since he formed the Concerned Citizens Committee in 1984 to protest against the firm's setting up shop next to a school without first obtaining a new pollution-control permit.
Noting that the plant's proposed pollution control system has yet to be installed or tested, Schenkel said that Scott is unduly hasty in proclaiming that the health threat from Plato is a phantom.
"I believe that it is premature to attempt to put this issue to rest," Schenkel said. "Until that facility is regulated to the one-in-a-million (cancer risk) threshold, and unless assurances are given that it will remain in compliance, I don't think the problem is solved."
Schenkel expressed incredulity at the Department of Health Services' findings that the miscarriages--which he brought to the department's attention--do not appear related to the plant's emissions.
"We knew going in that it would be difficult to establish a causal relationship of health problems to an environmental source," he said. "Certainly, the health department is not ready to say that Plato was directly responsible for those miscarriages. But I'm sure Dr. Papanek is not ready to say they aren't."
Proving a Negative
Papanek said he could not guarantee that any particular miscarriage was not caused by exposure to hexavalent chromium because it is impossible to draw such conclusions.
"It's not ever possible to say that one individual's health outcome is or is not related to any specific source," Papanek said. "Chromium, like other toxics, doesn't leave a footprint."
As for the risk of cancer, Papanek said, the danger to the public is negligible.
"It's there, but it's minimal," he went on. "I like to tell people that the (cancer) risk from sidestream cigarette smoke is 1,000 times higher."
Scott expressed dismay that Schenkel, who first alerted residents to potential health risks from the plant, should refuse to cooperate with her efforts to inform the public.
Question List Urged
She said she first became aware of Schenkel's opposition last week, when she asked him to prepare a list of questions that would be provided to the Air Quality Management District and the Department of Health Services, so that they could be researched and answered at the Jan. 19 meeting. Schenkel refused.
"We simply asked him to provide a list of questions, not to concede anything," Scott said. "I would think that he, of all individuals, would welcome the opportunity to have these questions addressed by professionals."
Schenkel said he has no objection to posing questions to representatives of the AQMD or health department. But he said he saw no reason to provide the questions in advance, which he said could allow the officials to formulate reassuring but perhaps misleading responses.
"I think the public's needs are best served when they get the answers to their questions on the spot," Schenkel said. "I think that's how you get at the truth. . . . Anything less would be to whitewash the entire issue."
Scott replied, "It's not a matter of trying to remove or whitewash the fact that there was a health-risk factor, but to remove some of the distortion."
Hearing for Parents
In light of Schenkel's refusal to assist in preparing a list of questions, Scott said she will hold a meeting Thursday at the school district's offices to enable parents to offer questions that they would like answered by the officials.
Schenkel said he plans to attend the Jan. 19 meeting, but said he will not ask questions unless he believes that the pollution control engineers and epidemiologists are misleading the public.
"If I hear any inaccuracy, or a cover-up, or any information I have a personal problem with . . . there's no question I'll speak up to challenge any information I hear that might be out of line or off-base," he said.
He denied charges that he is stubbornly refusing to accept information that minimizes potential health risks at Plato. Rather, he said, he believes that the plant's operations must be viewed with unceasing scrutiny.
"You can't ignore a problem and hope that it will go away," he said. "We didn't attain the level of control we have by ignoring the problem. . . . Through keeping on the pressure, we've managed to force that company to reach further and further into the best technology possible, so that it can install (emission control) equipment that is 99% effective."
Ulterior Motive Charged
Scott said she believes that Schenkel wants to keep residents in a perpetual state of panic about the plant.
"My feeling is that he simply doesn't want this to be resolved and does not support allaying the fears in the community or bringing them into proper perspective," she asserted. "It's easy to say the community is endangered and get the community panicked with a statement like the sky is falling. Getting to the facts of that statement is much more difficult."
Schenkel maintains that Scott is trying to gloss over a serious health issue that she does not fully comprehend.
"Frankly, I think Sharon might be in over her head," he said. "Toxics are a complex issue. I spent 7 1/2 years on the staff at the AQMD, and I certainly wouldn't pretend to be an expert in the field. I think her relatively recent appearance in this issue may have some influence on her efforts to shut the door and end discussion at this point.
"It's definitely not time to close the door. I'm still sending my two kids down there (to Shull School) every day, and I'm going to keep my eye on this issue in the months and years ahead."