The Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, Calif., on Thursday, March 12, 2015. The facility is closed and is being demolished. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News) Children who grew up near the Exide battery recycling plant had high levels of lead in their baby teeth, an indicator the toxin also may have accumulated in the brain, kidneys and liver, according to a study released Monday.
The breakthrough study is the first to examine long-term exposure to lead dust potentially affecting the health of 250,000 residents in lower-income, majority Latino communities in southeast Los Angeles .
“We know teeth are essentially a marker for lead in your body,” said Jill Johnston, assistant professor of environmental health at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and principal author of the study.
“So we can suspect higher levels in teeth mean higher levels in other parts of the body,” Johnston said during an interview Monday, a day after her study appeared in the May 5 edition of the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology. Lead is a neurotoxin for which there is no safe level. Decades of studies correlate breathing lead dust or drinking water laced with lead — as in Flint, Michigan — with cognitive dysfunction which slows learning and brain development, reduces IQ and affects the heart and other organs.
The Exide plant in Vernon recycled 11 million lead-acid auto batteries per year and released 3,500 tons of lead until it closed in March 2015 . The U.S. Department of Justice and the plant operators agreed to close the facility after repeated hazardous waste violations.
Residents of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Huntington Park and Commerce were closest to the plant’s emissions, which settled into the soil, in backyards, roadways and rooftops.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control collected 117,356 samples from upper layers of soil from about 8,000 properties. The median level of lead was 190 parts per million, much higher than the state’s threshold of 80 ppm.
Before Johnston’s study, the only way to measure for lead exposure was through blood tests. But blood samples only account for four weeks of exposure.
Testing baby teeth showed lead entered while the baby was in the mother’s womb, during her unborn child’s second and third trimesters. Also, lead exposure continued until after birth for about one year. Infants are at higher risk for lead exposure because they crawl on the floor, in the dirt and put their hands in their mouth, Johnston said.
“Our study provides insight into the legacy of the impact of industrial contamination on children,” Johnston said in a prepared statement.
The USC professor learned of testing baby teeth from a similar study in Mexico involving lead exposure. Working with community organizations, she asked parents to donate for analysis their children’s baby teeth that they kept as keepsakes.
Forty-three people had saved their children’s baby teeth. They relinquished 50 teeth for testing. All 50 showed elevated levels of lead matching the higher levels in the soil, Johnston said. “Children who grew up in homes and in neighborhoods with higher lead soil levels, we saw more lead in their teeth. There was a strong correlation there,” she said.
“We are hoping to use this to help understand chronic exposure to industrial lead in Los Angeles and make sure public health is protected,” Johnston said.
The Exide plant is being taken down — slowly. It will be demolished in three stages, with the first stage completed, said Barbara Zumwalt, spokesperson for the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
A protective tent encompasses the buildings to prevent fugitive dust, she added.
Potential lead exposure is an issue at the still operating Quemetco lead-battery recycling plant in City of Industry , near Hacienda Heights and Avocado Heights. Johnston had begun asking parents for baby teeth, but that study has not yet been completed, said Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez, president of the Clean Air Coalition of Avocado Heights.
“We have a few kids who did give them some teeth. So yes, that would be very helpful,” she said.
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