'I felt I killed my children': lead poisons California community – and fills kids' teeth

For years, Terry Gonzalez-Cano encouraged her children to get outside and play in the dirt. “I grew up doing everything outside, and I encouraged my kids to do the same thing. We played in the backyard, we gardened," lei disse. “I thought I was being a good mother by forcing them to spend time outside.”

Gonzalez-Cano, 48, didn’t know that, for decades, the Exide lead battery recycling plant in the neighboring Los Angeles-area city of Vernon had blanketed blue-collar Latino communities with layer after layer of lead and cancer-causing arsenic.

Nel mese di giugno 2015, the soil on her property in the LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights was tested for lead by the California department of toxic substances control. Gonzalez-Cano said the results had come back in April 2016, 10 months after her property had been tested: her home had more than double the 80 parts per million (ppm) that California deems acceptable. At her father’s home a block away, where she and her brother spent countless hours playing in the backyard when they were children, the number averaged over 800ppm. One neighbor’s soil tested so high that it surpassed the 1,000ppm required to qualify as toxic waste.

“When I found out, I couldn’t breathe,” said Gonzalez-Cano. “I felt like I was the worst mother in the world. I felt that I had killed my children.”

Sitting next to her on the couch at her home recently, her brother Jose Gonzalez emptied a plastic bag full of bracelets from his dozens of trips to the hospital for sinus cancer on to the floor. “Here’s Exide’s legacy," Egli ha detto. “I thought I was staying fit when I used to play football in the mud. I didn’t know it, but I was poisoning myself.”

Six years after their property was tested, the siblings say that the state has not given them even a prospective timeline for when their property will be cleaned up. They worry about the damage that has already been done, and the health problems they and their families may have that will only manifest with time.

The evidence of the plant’s contamination is not just in the soil of local homes, but in the teeth of the children who inhabit them. UN 2019 studia found high levels of lead in the teeth of local children, indicating long-term exposure that was passed along to many while they were still in their mother’s wombs. “Mothers in these communities are exposed, and they pass that exposure on to their children before they’re even born,” said Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California who authored the study.

Despite its nearly 100-year presence, many in the community had never heard of Exide until less than a decade ago, although community organizers had been protesting against the plant and demanding action for many years. The company could not be reached for comment.

“This was a facility with a long history of violations,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “But the regulatory system sees these facilities as serving an important purpose” – about 11m used lead batteries were processed by the smelting plant on an annual basis – “and this gives these companies leverage, even when they’re violating the law.”

Idalmis Vaquero, a Boyle Heights resident and volunteer with Communities for a Better Environment, detto questo, when she first heard about Exide in 2013, she was shocked they hadn’t been shut down by regulatory agencies. “They knew for years and did nothing. I realized that they weren’t interested in protecting us. They were interested in protecting Exide," lei disse.

Many residents expressed skepticism that the pollution would have gone on as long as it did if their neighborhood looked different. “Because we’re working-class and Latino, we’re not a priority,” Terry Gonzalez-Cano stated flatly. She had to sell her father’s home in part to cover medical bills.

The plant was shuttered in 2015 as part of an agreement with the US Department of Justice that allowed Exide to avoid criminal prosecution for a litany of emissions and hazardous waste violations, although the department promised the company would be financially responsible for the cleanup. The enormous plant now stands derelict, covered with a white sheet meant to stop toxins from escaping.

At least 7,800 properties in the area have dangerous levels of lead contamination. Di 3,200 are considered the most affected, but so far only 2,407 have been cleaned, and a damning rapporto by the California state auditor found that the rest of that initial, most-dangerous batch are not expected to be cleaned until August 2022, over a year behind schedule.

The state has not given any timeline for the remainder, leaving thousands of families with few options but to tell their children not to play in dirt that has been infected with toxins for decades. “They tell us to stay home to stay safe from Covid-19,” said Rossmery Zayas, a community organizer. “But for us, home isn’t safe. There’s no escaping the contamination.”

Kids are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, and once exposed, the effects on their development can be devastating, such as learning disabilities, fatigue and seizures. Lead poisoning can also cause premature births and slowed growth in toddlers. Yet with the exception of a single childcare center, between May 2018 and May 2020, the state toxic substances department had not cleaned any “childcare centers, parks, or schools”. The department said that about 10 remained to be cleaned.

The California auditor blasted it for careless mistakes that “put the children and other at-risk individuals who spend time at these properties at unnecessary risk of the serious consequences of lead poisoning”.

“This is the largest residential cleanup of its kind in California,” the toxic substances department told the Guardian in an email. “We have listened to the heartbreaking stories from residents of the communities surrounding Exide and know they are dealing with the negative impacts from contamination from nearly a century of smelting activity.”

The department said it had implemented a handful of recommendations from the auditor’s report meant to speed up operations and allow for the expeditious decontamination of sensitive locations frequented by children.

But residents and activists are unimpressed. Some worry that as officials clean individual parcels instead of cleaning up block by block, properties risk being recontaminated when the wind blows dust from properties that have yet to be cleaned on to those that have been. Johnston from USC also said it was “highly unlikely” that the 1.7-mile radius cleanup area accurately captured the full extent of Exide’s contamination.

“I don’t believe that for a second,” said mark! Lopez, an organizer with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “But that’s the last thing the state wants to hear. They’re strapped for cash, and they want to put this behind them and move on. But we’ll still be living here with the effects.”

The community’s morale was dealt yet another blow last year when a Delaware bankruptcy court ruled that Exide could walk away from the property without financing the remaining cleanup costs, despite the government’s assurances otherwise.

It has left California taxpayers on the hook for the cleanup effort that could surpass $650m, a decision the state has vowed to fight.

Residents are unanimous in their own verdict: disgust.

“We were told Exide was going to pay to clean up its mess,” said Pastor John Moretta of Resurrection church in Boyle Heights. “But they’re getting off scot-free. We feel betrayed.”

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