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What you may not know about California’s lead-tainted water

The state of California has blood test results from this area, reflecting this result and showing high levels of lead in children living near the battery plant, which is now closed, The Los Angeles Times reports.

But the state isn’t using these blood tests to direct the massive cleanup of homes and yards contaminated by lead.

Why is this?

Health experts want to see the results used to help pinpoint neighborhoods that are in urgent need of cleanup because this is where children have been exposed to higher levels of the toxic metal. Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for young children, placing them at risk of lifelong physical, developmental, and behavioral problems.

In Flint, Michigan and elsewhere, blood-testing data have guided government responses to lead contamination. Michigan is using maps of blood lead levels in kids living in Flint to target neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest by the city’s lead-poisoned drinking water.

Officials in California have been unable to do this, however. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (CDTSC) said it’s been trying without success for more than two years to access blood lead levels from county and state health agencies where the records are kept.

Last September, 13 months into the cleanup process, the CDTSC formally requested census tract-level data, but is still waiting to receive it from state health officials. This has forced the department to rely on soil tests, wind patterns and proximity of the plant in guiding the cleanup of thousands of homes.

But toxics regulators say the state Department of Public Health still hasn’t provided the information, The Los Angeles Times reports. The health agency said medical privacy law prohibits it from releasing data showing individual test results and added that it is conducting and finalizing an extensive analysis regarding whether people in census tracts near the shuttered plant have increased lead levels in their blood.

The CDTSC is only aware of two kids — a baby and a toddler — who have shown high lead levels in their blood across the southeast Los Angeles County communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood, and Vernon, all of which have suffered lead contamination. The reason officials learned about the children is because their families told the agency about their blood test results.

The Los Angeles Times wanted to assess the extent of the problem, so it obtained and analyzed blood test records from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Lead levels higher than five micrograms or more per deciliter of blood are considered elevated, and this is the threshold used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young children who have levels higher than five are among the highest three percent tested nationwide.

So how did things get to this point in the first place?

The plant has been operating in Vernon since 1922, creating toxic air pollution for decades. Then, in 2000, Georgia-based Exide Technologies took over, The Los Angeles Times reports here.

The 15-acre facility operated as a lead-acid battery smelter and was only one of two plants west of the Rocky Mountains that was able to melt down lead from used car batteries to be used in manufacturing new ones. It operated 24/7 and cranked out some 25,000 batteries per day.

The company was constantly in trouble with environmental regulations for years. It was cited repeatedly by local, state, and federal officials for emitting too much cancer-causing arsenic and lead, which is a potent neurotoxin, and for breaking hazardous waste laws.

Activists in the surrounding communities contended for years that Exide’s operations were illegal and harmful to health. It took all the way up until 2008, after complaints of ash falling on soil, streets, and businesses for air quality regulators to act and curtail emissions.

The CDTSC knew for many years that the company violated environmental laws by releasing pollutants into the air, soil, and water, but failed to stop this. The state allowed the plant to operate for 33 years without a full permit, and all the while inspectors documented reams of violations — some 100 of them, including lead and acid leaks, a pond overflowing with toxic sludge, huge cracks in the floor, and dangerous levels of lead in the soil outside

Anger continued to grow over the situation as air pollution worsened, and in 2013, the CDTSC tried to shut the plant down, but the company went to court and the state closure order was overturned.

Then local communities finally caught a break

Tougher air quality regulations forced the plant to become idle in 2014. Even so, the company racked up even more violations for emitting too much lead. And, in January 2015, additional problems were discovered by state toxic waste inspectors. These problems included holes in the plant’s roof and walls.

As pressure mounted from community groups and elected officials to close the plant, Exide revealed in 2014 it was under federal criminal investigation, The Los Angeles Times reports. As the probe of its operations in Vernon continued, there was the very real possibility that the company could be hit with charges, landing its executives in jail.

Then, in March 2015, the company permanently closed after signing an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office.

As part of the deal, Exide and its employees avoided prosecution for decades of environmental abuses, including illegal storage, disposal, and shipment of hazardous waste. The company agreed to pay $50 million to demolish and clean the plant and neighboring communities, and to set aside $9 million to remove lead from homes.

At first, state regulators in 2013 ordered Exide to test soil in nearby homes, limiting testing to two small areas of about 200 homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood. When testing was conducted further from the plant, officials found that the contamination extended as far as 1.7 miles from the plant and may have contaminated up to 10,000 homes.

In the hopes of encouraging more testing near the Exide plant, the L.A. Department of Public Health has, for the past two years, administered a voluntary blood-screening program funded by Exide, as ordered by state toxics regulators.

The state shares blood-testing information with health officials in the county, who are then tasked with preventing lead poisoning. However, the CDTSC has not been able to obtain summaries of the results to aid its cleanup, even though it has made repeated requests, spokesman Jim Marxen told The Los Angeles Times.

It’s a serious problem, say public health experts.

“Officials should rely on blood lead data and soil lead levels to identify hot spots and target cleanup,” said Bruce Lanphear, a public health physician, who studies lead and children’s environmental health and who is a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University. “Otherwise they will be shooting in the dark.”

What’s even more frustrating is that the contamination was discovered months before the tragic situation in Flint, but authorities in Michigan are already using maps that pinpoint children’s blood levels and help target neighborhoods for water sampling, bottled water, filters, and lead line replacement, according to Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University.

Hanna-Attisha’s research shone the national spotlight on Flint, after it revealed an increase in kids with elevated blood levels after the city’s water supply was changed. She noted that screening data have been used regularly in communities across the U.S. to find neighborhoods that need intervention.

“It’s easy. And it should be done more,” she said.

But lead-tainted water in California isn’t limited to one small area near downtown Los Angeles. As The Desert Sun reports, there are 98 public water systems in California that recorded high lead readings from 2012-2015.

So how does lead-tainted water affect your health?

Pregnant women, fetuses, and newborns, according to U.S. News and World Report:

Research shows developing fetuses and young children are considerably more sensitive to lead than adults are. This is because their blood-brain barrier, which filters materials in the bloodstream before they reach the brain, isn’t fully developed yet. Prenatal exposure can also make it more difficult to get pregnant; even if it’s been years since the potential mom has been exposed to lead. Rita Loch-Caruso, director of the Center of Environmental Contaminants at the University of Michigan School of Public Health said that lead exposure during pregnancy increases the potential for premature birth, lower birth weight, and miscarriage, in addition to learning difficulties and slower growth in newborns.

In children:

Researchers have long been aware that lead poisoning causes brain damage in children. Even at low levels, lead puts children at risk for developmental delay, ADHD, hearing problems, and reduced growth, said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and chief of the section of clinical toxicology at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. Children may also become more irritable, have problems with a lack of appetite compounded by weight loss, become fatigued and develop gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting and constipation, the Mayo Clinic reports, per U.S. News. Lead poisoning can also cause anemia, seizures, damage to the nervous system, kidneys, or hearing.

In adults:

In general, adults are less susceptible to being harmed by lead exposure. Nevertheless, it can lead to changes in mood, behavior, sleep patterns and personality. Physical symptoms are likelier to occur with higher lead levels and can include high blood pressure, muscle pain, and headaches. High blood pressure is quite risky because it can lead to kidney damage.

How can you make sure your water is safe?

Learn what contaminants are in your water. Each year, water companies are required by law to supply customers with a Consumer Confidence Report – a water quality report that tells you what contaminants are lurking in your well or public water, and this includes lead. The report also gives you a head’s up on the potential health risk of these toxins. Water companies must provide this report to their customers by July 1 each year, according to Jonathan Yoder, a researcher with the CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch.

“It’s important for people to be aware of where their water comes from, where it’s treated and how to know if it’s safe to use or drink,” Yoder said, noting it’s best for concerned consumers to read the report closely. Some companies will publish the report information via newspapers or other public forums, and all of them will post it online, U.S. NEWS reports.

Consult the EPA, which has a website with plenty of information on local drinking water quality reports. There’s also the agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, which can also be reached at 1-800-426-4791. It provides details regarding drinking water standards, public drinking water systems, source water protection and residential and commercial wells and septic systems.

What happened in Flint, Michigan is a tragedy, but now that there’s increased awareness about lead in the nation’s water supplies, perhaps citizens will be more empowered to do something about it.

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