Packed Community Townhall on Elevated Lead Levels in East L.A.


Last night, I was reading Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax to my daughter at bedtime. At our home, this is one of those dog-eared books read so many times that we all know it by heart. But the lines below jumped out at me anew this time.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better. It's not.

I’d just come home from a townhall meeting at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, where a whole lot of people who care a whole awful lot had turned out in force. Community members came to hear more and voice their concerns after recent soil test results from homes and schools near the Exide battery recycling plant showed elevated lead levels.

Exide’s Vernon plant has been recycling lead-acid car batteries since 1922. Without strict controls, this process can release lead, a potent neurotoxin, and arsenic, a known carcinogen, into the air. These airborne toxins can then deposit on the ground. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is charged with regulating the airborne emissions, while the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is responsible for dealing with soil contamination.

Almost all of the recent soil testing from 39 homes and two schools in Boyle Heights and Maywood showed lead levels in excess of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s health screening level. The tests did not show elevated arsenic levels in the soils sampled. Based on the elevated soil lead levels, DTSC is requiring Exide to submit by Friday a plan for further testing at these sites and surrounding neighborhoods and for addressing the toxic contamination found -- particularly at homes with pregnant women and children and where levels are a potential threat to people’s health.

In the meantime, DTSC recommends the following to protect against lead exposure:

  • Keep children away from areas of bare soil
  • Thoroughly wash children's hands, especially when they come inside the home
  • Place door mats inside and outside the entrance doors
  • Thoroughly wash any home-grown produce before eating
  • Grow produce in raised planter boxes

Of course, the best way to ensure public health and safety is to prevent contamination before it happens and clean up contamination that already exists. It’s hard to tell kids not to play outside, and parents and teachers shouldn’t have to because they are scared of what’s in the ground or in the air.

If Dr. Seuss was right, things in the communities around Exide are going to get better. There are a lot of people who care a whole awful lot -- about the health of their loved ones, about clean air and soil, and about making sure Exide and other toxic facilities in their communities are cleaned up. We’ll need them and more to make sure that happens.