The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health will offer free blood testing on a massive scale for lead poisoning to address worries that a Vernon battery recycler has jeopardized the health of hundreds of thousands of residents in southeast Los Angeles, officials said Thursday.
The effort, which is likely to stretch from Boyle Heights to Huntington Park, comes amid rising fears about emissions and leaks from the Exide Technologies facility.
Surrounded by dense immigrant and working-class neighborhoods, it is one of the largest such plants in the country.
Officials said Exide will pay for the tests.
Residents have increasingly expressed outrage over lead and arsenic emissions from the plant. Health authorities said they are not testing people for arsenic levels because such tests do not provide clear-cut answers.
Arsenic is a known carcinogen.
Lead contamination, which can lead to a variety of problems even in small doses — including learning disabilities in children — is far easier to measure. In severe cases of lead poisoning, patients can be treated with compounds that remove the metal from the blood stream.
Even then, it remains in bones and can cause neurological damage and cancer.
"Our responsibility is to protect our constituents," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents the area and pushed for testing because she "got a little hot under the collar" amid news reports about the plant.
"Something had to be done," she said.
The blood testing could begin late next month. State regulators have already ordered testing of dust around the plant for lead and arsenic, and plan soil tests in October as well.
Dr. Cyrus Rangan, the director of the county public health's bureau of toxicology, said a main reason for the testing is "to provide a measure of reassurance to the public."
He said that he does not expect to find large numbers of people suffering from elevated lead levels, because his office is "not hearing about people with a lot of symptoms of lead poisoning."
Rangan said the cost of the effort will depend on how many people come forward to get tested. Anyone who believes he or she has been affected can be tested, he said.
The testing will continue, he said, "until people stop wanting it."
There are a number of details to be worked out, including which lab will perform the analysis and whether people will get tested at clinics or by teams traveling by van. Officials are working on an outreach campaign to ensure the public is alerted.
The effort is not a rigorous scientific study and therefore cannot determine whether the Exide plant is the source of any lead detected, experts said.
"The problem with Vernon is that it has so much industry," said John Froines, a toxicologist at the UCLA School of Public Health. "I'm sure you've got lots of sources of lead."
Exide officials did not respond to emails seeking comment in the last week. They have said previously that arsenic and lead emissions have been reduced substantially in recent years.
Community leaders and elected officials said they welcomed the screening.
"I applaud the Department of Public Health for gathering scientific data to determine the impact of toxic releases in our communities," said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez. "I encourage residents to take advantage of the testing so we know exactly what it is we are dealing with."
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights, said: "It is my hope that the agencies and courts overseeing Exide will be ready to act on those results with the interest of our communities in mind."
Msg. John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, who has been rallying residents throughout the region to protest Exide's operation, said he thought the testing would "help solve a lot of people's concerns."
Local officials and residents have been worried about Exide's lead emissions for years. Regulators have found lead dust on rooftops and streets near the plant.
In 2008, air district officials ordered the company to cut lead emissions, citing unacceptable health risks. After that, the company made improvements such as enclosing facilities and installing negative air-pressure systems.
This spring, The Times reported that the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that elevated arsenic emissions from the plant increased the cancer risk for more than 110,000 people.
The same risk assessment showed that more than 250,000 people from Boyle Heights to Maywood and Huntington Park faced a "chronic hazard" from arsenic exposure, including the possibility of neurological effects on children. It is unclear whether anyone has been harmed, but the stories sparked calls for further investigation.
After the air district first revealed the elevated cancer risk, regulators from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control moved to temporarily suspend plant operations.
But Exide, which filed for bankruptcy protection this summer, appealed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, arguing that the plant did not pose "an imminent and substantial" danger to the public and that regulators were acting under political pressure. A judge sided with the company and it resumed operations.
Rangan said he could recall one previous occasion of extensive lead testing in response to an industrial source, nearly 20 years ago, involving a lead smelter in the City of Industry.
That involved just 125 children aged 1 to 5 who lived in Hacienda Heights within 1,000 feet of the Quemetco smelter.
That study did not find elevated lead levels.
"We hope, of course, that we will find nothing here as well," Rangan said. "That would be great."