Recently, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services announced its plans to launch a blood test for lead poisoning to settle outrage and fear over the toxicity of a local Vernon car battery recycler, one of the largest facilities of its kind west of the Mississippi. Plant operator and Georgia-based battery maker Exide Technologies will pay for the tests. Though this seems to be a step in the right direction, the tests will not be effective in serving the public properly. A scientific study is necessary.
For a plant that has been around for 30 years recycling 22 million lead-acid automotive batteries annually, the events of the past year point downhill. According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, California regulators ordered a temporary shutdown of the plant earlier this year on April 24.
They were prompted by a report issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which had found that the plant was emitting a hazardous level of arsenic and carcinogens in the air, threatening 100,000 nearby residents. Subsequently, the Department of Toxic Substance Control conducted an investigation that found hazardous levels of toxic metal in water discharges from facility pipes. The contamination of the soil and underground water supplies are still being determined.
In June, however, Exide won the right to reopen in Los Angeles. County Superior Court’s Judge Luis Lavin stated that the public would not suffer by allowing the lead recycler to gain more business. But a proper investigation would provide the hard statistics and evidence needed to properly assess the plant’s safety.
Exide’s plant in Frisco, Texas had stirred a lot of concern among residents as well. Blood testing for lead exposure near the plant had also been offered to residents, but the data reported said that of the 608 samples analyzed, 575 did not contain detectable levels of lead. Yet, upon closer examination, the tests done in Frisco have so many flaws that could possibly be repeated in the Los Angeles plan.
Dr. Cyrus Rangan, the director of the county public health’s bureau of toxicology, told the Los Angeles Times that he expects to find nothing out of the ordinary for the L.A. tests because there are not many “people with a lot of symptoms of lead poisoning.”
But that’s exactly the concern. Leading poison, according to Mayo Clinic, is difficult to detect; there are no symptoms until levels become hazardous, or in other words, it’s too late. Thus, a one-time testing project will not show the true nature of the situation. Moreover, though treatment of lead poisoning removes the metal from bloodstream, traces of it remain in the bones, sometimes causing cancer and neurological damage. The effectiveness of the tests also depends on how many people come forward to participate. Thus, the measure should be better publicized.
The possibility of these tests coming too late is very real. In fact, the results from the South Coast Air Quality Management District alone should be reason enough to shut down the plant permanently.
According to the Times, its report states that there were elevated levels of arsenic emitting from the plant that threaten the lives of more than 100,000 people. The same risk assessment gauged that from Boyle Heights to Huntington Park, more than 250,000 people faced a chronic hazard from arsenic.
Blood tests could be a good start, but to really get to the bottom of this for real answers as to whether or not the plant is life-threatening, efforts must be more genuine and serious. This round of tests shouldn’t just be about allaying concerns but about assessing actual risk. What the city needs is an extensive epidemiological study comparing lead levels in representative samples of residents from multiple distances from the plant. It’s time to put people before profits.
Valerie Yu is a sophomore majoring in biological sciences and English.