Lead found in baby teeth of kids living near former battery recycling plant in Vernon, study shows

VERNON, Calif. (KABC) -- A new study reveals lead is being found in the baby teeth of children living near a former battery recycling plant in Vernon.

Thousands of residents who live near the shuttered Exide battery facility in Vernon know they were exposed to lead.

The plant recycled 11 million auto batteries per year and operated for decades until it was closed in 2015 because of a legal settlement for hazardous waste violations. But, an alarming new USC/East Yard Communities study found extremely high levels of lead in the baby teeth of 43 children who live within a 2-mile radius of Exide.

"We focused on shutting down Exide, then we focused on cleaning up Exide, and now we're focused on cleaning up the neighborhoods. But even if all of the lead is gone, we're still dealing with inner-generational lead exposure because of the legacy of Exide," said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

The study, called the Truth Fairy Project, studied teeth because they provide a window into prenatal and early childhood exposure to lead.

The communities impacted by Exide include parts of Huntington Park, Maywood, Commerce and unincorporated East Los Angeles. The highest levels of lead are in Boyle Heights.

"I'm not surprised. Growing up, kids playing around in the dirt and the grass, being kids, and they're being exposed to it," said Boyle Heights resident Armando Vargas.

Angie Gamboa has lived in Boyle Heights for 50 years and says she worries about her own health. She received a letter over a year ago that her front yard tested positive for high levels of lead, but she says she hasn't heard anything since.

In the study, the highest concentrations of lead in the teeth came from homes that had the highest levels of lead in their soil.

"I don't think enough is being done, and I think it is affecting our kids, and I think it is a scary thing because our kids will continue to be sick because it will continue to be passed on," Gamboa added.

Lead exposure in children causes brain damage, decreases in IQ, stunted growth and problems with learning and behavior.

In some cases in the USC study, higher exposure of lead occurred while the baby was still in the womb, meaning a mother's exposure to lead was transmitted to her unborn child.

"This is happening in so many communities," Lopez said. "So I hope that when people look at this, they don't think, 'Oh, poor them.' They need to think, 'Are we being exposed too?'"

In order to decrease exposure to offspring, the study recommends that women get tested for lead during their pregnancy or even earlier.
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