A School, Factories and Plenty of Fear
Mary Saucedo was giving an old neighborhood friend a ride home one afternoon last summer in Bell Gardens. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and the woman inquired about Saucedo’s three sons.
I only have two now, Saucedo responded quietly. My youngest, Joseph, died of cancer two years ago.
The woman was startled by the coincidence. I just lost my nephew to cancer, she said. Didn’t your son go to Suva Elementary School like my nephew? Did you know they think the factory next door has cancer-causing chemicals?
No, Saucedo said, shaken, I didn’t. Nor did she know that several other Suva students were dying of cancer in her old part of Bell Gardens. Or that on her old block alone, her former next-door neighbor had been diagnosed with leukemia and a boy who used to live down the street had bone cancer.
The more she learned, the more she wept.
Saucedo was the latest member of a sad, frustrated, confused knot of working-class families who have slowly come to believe that their individual heartbreak is, in fact, an act of environmental betrayal.
They believe the cancer that plagues their neighborhood comes from hexavalent chromium and other toxic pollutants released into the soil and air by two now-closed chrome-plating factories next door to the Suva Elementary and Intermediate schools, separated from the playground by only a chain-link fence.
They have tallied the misery: 22 students and six Suva teachers have been diagnosed with various forms of cancer since 1991, the residents say.
“I don’t know a lot about the technology and the metals they use, but I do know my family is sick and it could have been caused by hexavalent chromium,” said Beverly Brock, Saucedo’s former next-door neighbor who was diagnosed with leukemia in 1992. “What else could it be?”
On these modest streets lined with stucco houses and fruit trees, families swap stories about chromium emissions and chemotherapy and radiation and the loss of a child.
Faced with skeptical health experts, who told them for years that there is probably no “cancer cluster” here, residents last year finally began a crusade against the pollution and the institutions charged with regulating it.
In response, state environmental officials launched an investigation that found contamination at the school and one of the plants, forcing a cleanup. Then last month, state health officials agreed to study the illnesses. But epidemiologists caution that cancer clusters are hard to identify, and that proving a link between a cluster and a polluting factor is even harder.
The story being played out here is a struggle for what numerous urban studies experts call “environmental justice”--the belated recognition, often documented in studies, that poor people and people of color are more likely to live near hazardous waste sites and factories with dangerous emissions, and have less political power to fight them.
Neighborhoods like these experience “a sense of helplessness and a sense of outrage,” said Michael Lythcott, a New Jersey-based consultant who mediates such environmental issues. “You feel you’re being disregarded because you’re a minority community. . . . You work like a damn dog to keep food on the table, keep your kids out of gangs, and all of a sudden comes something from across the fence that’s in your yard, that’s in your house.”
One by one, the Bell Gardens families would confront the horrifying fact that they were not alone. Then, having made the connection, they would wrestle with new feelings of bitterness and guilt and, finally, the realization of how elusive the whole truth would be.
Linking the Individual Tragedies
Beverly Brock was one of the first residents to connect her ailments with those of the other families.
It would take her five years.
Brock, a former Suva student and mother of three, had been diagnosed with leukemia in February 1992, after weeks of sharp hip pain and nausea.
For 2 1/2 years, she was in and out of the hospital. She went through debilitating rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Her daughters dropped out of cheerleading to take care of her. Her mother drained her bank account to pay for the medical expenses. Her brother donated bone marrow for a lifesaving transplant.
Even after Brock’s cancer went into remission, she felt there was a curse hanging over her tiny white house, half-hidden behind a large lemon tree laden with fruit, a block from the school. Daughter Kimberly, now 17, got unexplained rashes. Brock’s eldest daughter, Natasha, 18, had a miscarriage last summer. Her son Isaac, 9, battled stomach ailments and severe asthma that often required visits to the emergency room.
Then last July, right after Natasha’s miscarriage, a flier showed up at Brock’s door. It was from Joseph and Mary Perales, a local family whose 14-year-old son had died of leukemia the previous October. A few months after he died, his fifth-grade teacher visited his parents. She told them there had been concerns at the school for the last 10 years, unbeknownst to many residents, that toxins in the area were causing health problems. I think something’s going on, she said.
Stunned, then angry, the Perales family started talking to other neighbors and organized a community group called Suva/La Causa to demand environmental protection.
As Brock read the flier’s charges that pollution was causing cancer and other illnesses in the area, she thought: “That’s what’s going on in my family.” She thought about her sister-in-law who had had a stillborn birth and two miscarriages. She thought about her two neighbors who had died of cancer. She thought about another next-door neighbor who had died of a lung ailment.
“It was like a puzzle,” she said. “It was all finally being put together.”
She called the Perales family and they exchanged stories. At community meetings, she began to learn about the rumors that had been swirling for a decade, vague fears that a pair of factories near the school--Chrome Crankshaft and J & S Chrome Plating, which closed in 1990--were the cause of miscarriages and other health problems in the area. The factories had arrived in the 1950s and ‘60s, well after the school was built.
She learned that in 1988, county air quality officials had detected elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, in the air around the factories and had ordered the companies to reduce the toxic emissions.
She learned how, at the same time, worried teachers reporting a number of miscarriages among their ranks requested an investigation by the county health department. But after several months of studying health statistics, the county concluded that the number of miscarriages and the cancer rate in the area were comparable to other nearby parts of the county. It suggested that, at most, the chromium emissions from the plant might cause one extra cancer case in the neighborhood every 10 to 20 years.
A 1992 study by the USC Cancer Surveillance Program that mapped cancers in the county confirmed the county findings, reporting no evidence of increased cancer rates in the area.
Ever since, inconclusiveness has lingered. Brock still wonders if she will live long enough to know her grandchildren. Her daughters worry that they will be unable to have children, or that they’ll get cancer, too.
Chrome Crankshaft officials ceased operations at the site on East Florence Place on Jan. 11 as the state inspection progressed. The company said the decision was based on internal business factors, and that it had been in compliance with air permit regulations and other environmental laws. Officials said in a statement this month that they “have not seen any credible scientific evidence” that the plant’s operations caused illnesses.
Residents are beyond listening.
“I’m really angry to think this company knew they were emitting this with a school right next door,” Brock said. “How can anybody think that was OK? . . . If it was a neighborhood with more money and power, it would be taken seriously.”
A Cancer Victim at 16
Victor Castellanos, 27, made the connection when he saw a local newspaper last fall and flashed back to his 16th birthday.
The youngest of nine children, he had grown up down the street from Saucedo and Brock and attended Suva from kindergarten through sixth grade. During recess, he would stick his hand through the chain-link fence separating the playground and the factory, trying to catch lizards scurrying through the grass.
The day he turned 16 he was riding a dirt bike when he hit a wall and broke his leg. X-rays showed a large tumor in his femur. Tests came back with shattering news: He had a rare form of bone cancer.
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments burned holes in his gums and tongue. His weight plummeted. He thought he was going to die.
Once an athletic teenager, he couldn’t bike or skateboard anymore, much less surf. He dropped out of school, too tired to make it through his classes, and broke up with his girlfriend.
“I didn’t want anyone to see me like that,” he said.
He had unexplained nightmares about walking through the hallway at his old elementary school.
By the time he got sick, Castellanos’ family had moved to a house in Norwalk, 10 minutes south of Suva. They knew nothing of the talk in Bell Gardens that the company was polluting the area.
And then his parents read an article in a Spanish-language newspaper on Suva/La Causa’s allegations about the plating plant.
“That’s where I went,” Castellanos reminded his parents, almost in a daze. He dug out his old class pictures, remembering a girl in first grade who had died of cancer. He started attending Suva/La Causa meetings with other cancer patients and their families.
Castellanos’ doctors believe he has beaten the cancer. He looks healthy and strong from his regular weightlifting routine. But he is plagued by anxiety and still feels nauseous when he thinks about the radiation.
“I don’t feel like I’m 27,” he said. “I feel like I’m 77. My bones are old.
“I just want to know the truth. I just don’t want to see anyone suffer like I did.”
Testing Reveals Toxic Chemicals
It was the concerns of people like Saucedo and Brock and Castellanos that convinced the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to conduct an environmental investigation at the factory and school last fall.
At Chrome Crankshaft, tests showed high levels of hexavalent chromium and other hazardous materials such as nickel and cadmium. At Suva, samples revealed trace levels of hexavalent chromium in the playground, as well as concentrations of other toxic chemicals.
The contaminated soil at the school was removed by Chrome Crankshaft in December, and the company has been ordered to clean up the hazardous substances on its site.
For now, state officials say students and staff are not at risk from the hexavalent chromium found at the school. A state report released Jan. 25, however, concluded that the toxic emissions from Chrome Crankshaft recorded in the fall have created an elevated lifetime cancer risk of four cases per 100,000 in the area, a figure that falls in the “discretionary range” for requiring corrective action, according to Chuck Salocks, a state toxicologist.
An environmental consultant for Chrome Crankshaft questioned the report, contending that flawed soil sample methodology overstated the risk of cancer. Company officials also said that toxins found in soil samples at Chrome Crankshaft were not discharges from the factory, but sediments from the other, defunct chrome-plating company that had washed over during heavy flooding.
State health officials, meanwhile, have begun looking at the pattern of cancers in the area and studying the history of toxic emissions from the factory.
Cancer clusters are notoriously hard to pin down, primarily because cases are traditionally recorded according to where patients live at the time of diagnosis, not where they were when they contracted the disease, said Wendy Cozen, a medical epidemiologist with the USC Cancer Surveillance Program. In addition, neighbors may perceive a high number of cases on their block, but fail to realize that different types of cancers are different diseases, often with different causes.
“To tie [a cluster] to a specific exposure is very difficult,” Cozen said.
That makes it doubtful that Mary Saucedo will ever know for sure why her handsome, youngest son--16-year-old Joseph Gamez, the one who loved to dance and wanted to be a sheriff’s deputy--came home one rainy day complaining of flu-like symptoms and never got any better.
‘Why Didn’t Anyone Say Anything?’
It was March 1996. Joseph’s head pounded and he started vomiting. After several days, Saucedo took him to the emergency room, where doctors ordered a CAT scan. A few hours later, a doctor came out with the results, a troubled look on his face. The nurse rubbed Saucedo’s shoulder and asked if there was someone there with her.
Saucedo trembled, shaking her head.
The doctor pointed to a large round spot on an X-ray of Joseph’s brain. “Your son has a brain tumor,” he said.
Joseph quickly deteriorated as the tumor spread. Weak from chemotherapy and tormented by seizures, he spent his last few months at home, nursed by his mother. He tried to keep her spirits up, as he always had when she was sad.
“One of these days, I’m going to be like a bird and fly away,” he told her. “But don’t worry about me. I want you to be OK.”
As she cared for Joseph, Saucedo’s husband, George, was desperately trying to figure out why the tumor had struck his stepson. The doctor asked them if they lived near a place with chemicals, but they said no. They didn’t know about the chrome-plating factory right next to the playground where Joseph had gone every day after school, coming home with dirt clinging to his clothes.
Four months after he was diagnosed, Joseph died, a few days short of his 17th birthday. For the next year, his mother visited his grave daily, wishing she had gone with him. She and George and their four remaining children could not live in the Bell Gardens house any more. They moved a few miles away to an apartment in Downey.
And then two years later Mary Saucedo gave an old friend that ride home to Bell Gardens and made the connection.
Today she can still not bear to drive past Joseph’s old school.
“I feel guilty,” she said, crying. “If I hadn’t sent him there, he would be fine.”
Her husband is almost too angry to speak about it. “The laws should protect everybody equally. Why didn’t anyone say anything?”
Families File Suit
Local health officials say the fears of the Saucedos and other Bell Gardens residents are unwarranted and should have been put to rest by a study the county performed in 1988 after Suva’s teachers voiced concerns.
Shirley Fannin, the county’s director of disease control, said the 1988 report found no evidence of unusual health problems.
“After all I read [in the study] about Suva schools, I would not be the least afraid of sending my grandsons there in terms of cancer risk, and I love them dearly,” Fannin said.
Nevertheless, the Saucedos and two other families from their old block, along with four others, filed a civil lawsuit last fall against the chrome-plating companies, the county health department and other government agencies they say failed to protect them from cancer-causing pollutants.
On Jan. 19, a community environmental organization filed another lawsuit claiming that Chrome Crankshaft violated the state health code and Unfair Business Practices Act by releasing chemicals into a potential source of drinking water. Chrome Crankshaft officials refused to comment on the lawsuits.
This week, state officials announced that they would hold an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Suva Elementary School on March 13 to answer residents’ questions one on one.
Mary Saucedo plans to be there.
In the evenings, she sits in her living room under a large framed portrait of Joseph, looking at a scrapbook with his baby photos and get-well notes from his friends.
“These kids were innocent,” she said. “They went to school to have a future, not to have their lives cut short. No families should have to go through this.”
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