Children at three elementary schools near the closed Exide Technologies battery recycling plant returned to classes this week to find parts of their campuses fenced off to protect them from lead-contaminated soil.
Crews installed temporary fencing at Fishburn Avenue Elementary in Maywood, Lorena Street Elementary in Boyle Heights and Rowan Avenue Elementary in East Los Angeles after testing found elevated levels of the brain-damaging metal in several areas, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said.
The district began putting up fencing last week under the instructions of toxic waste regulators, who are overseeing the massive effort to find and remove contaminated soil from homes, schools, day care centers and parks near the former recycling facility in Vernon.
The fenced-off areas included dead grass and bare soil near classroom buildings and at the base of trees at a playground, as well as front lawns where children play, said Robert Laughton, director of the school district's Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
The actions stem from soil tests that began last year and found elevated levels of lead at five of two dozen schools within about 1.7 miles of Exide, where regulators believe the soil has been tainted by decades of lead emissions from the plant.
Those lead concentrations were not high enough to pose an immediate threat to students and staff, authorities said, but the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control instructed school officials to cover the areas with mulch or fencing while they conducted more thorough testing.
Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that is most dangerous to young children, who can ingest it through contact with contaminated soil. Even small amounts of lead can lower IQs, reduce academic achievement and cause other permanent developmental and behavioral problems.
In a statement Thursday, the toxics agency said that sampling at 20 schools "found no need for any cleanup," while testing at Lorena and Rowan "found low-risk lead levels in areas not frequently used."
Mayra Reynaga, who has two children attending Rowan, said the discovery of lead at the school is "devastating" and should prompt a cleanup.
Her 11-year-old daughter, Darilyn Musia, said she and her classmates used to do cartwheels and play football in the blocked-off area where lead was detected but were told at a school assembly Thursday to stay away.
The toxics agency said that "out of an abundance of caution" it was coordinating with school officials on "steps to further reduce the low risks at these campuses." Those measures could include grates around trees and reseeding and watering grass areas to reduce exposure to the soil.
School district officials said state regulators notified them late Wednesday that cleanup would not be necessary at Eastman Avenue Elementary in East Los Angeles and Fishburn in Maywood. The district said it is expecting final decisions in the next day or two on whether the Lorena and Rowan campuses require cleanup.
"If soil remediation is the next step for Lorena or Rowan, LAUSD will do what is necessary to ensure that the school is safe," said Elvia Cano, a school district spokeswoman.
The latest tests, conducted as recently as last week, found lead levels of up to 95 ppm at Fishburn, 203 ppm at Lorena and 333 ppm at Rowan, according to results sent Monday from the toxics agency to the school district.
The highest levels were detected at Eastman. School district officials last year removed contaminated soil around two trees at the school where sampling found lead levels ranging from 220 to 688 parts per million. The state found that lead levels at Huntington Park High School were not high enough to require cleanup.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers a soil level of 400 parts per million or higher a health hazard in bare soil in children's play areas, while California has a more stringent standard of 80 ppm for residential soil.
L.A. Unified officials said they informed school principals of the fencing and soil testing last week and sent robocalls and fliers home to parents Thursday -- two days after classes began.
But few of the parents gathered Thursday afternoon outside Rowan Avenue Elementary were aware that the area of grass, dirt and mulch where their children used to meet them was blocked off because of lead contamination.
"It's a little dangerous and scary," said Rowan parent Cristine Ramirez, who had assumed the school was only fixing the grass.
"My kids used to play right there," Ramirez said as she picked up her 7-year-old son, Cristopher, from second grade. "Now I tell them 'no, you stay away from there.' "
At a community meeting Thursday evening in Maywood, state regulators faced tough questions from residents frustrated with the pace of soil sampling and cleanup. Several parents demanded to know why they were not informed of the lead contamination found at schools.
L.A. Unified and the toxic substances department did not initially notify the public of the elevated lead levels. The school district began posting sampling results online last month after media inquiries.
The Exide facility melted down used car batteries, releasing dangerous air pollutants into surrounding communities for decades before being shut down permanently in March 2015 in deal with federal prosecutors.
State regulators, who allowed the plant to operate for more than three decades on a temporary permit, now believe up to 10,000 homes across half a dozen southeast L.A. County communities may be polluted with lead, presenting the largest soil cleanup they have ever conducted.
The effort is expected to take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete.
9:05 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a community meeting Thursday night.
7:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about soil testing and information from parents, students and officials.