Living in Industry’s Shadow: After Years of Illnesses, Family Looks for Answers
The Martin family lives 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, in a neat yellow house in a city called Maywood.
Starting a few blocks from their home, nearly 2,000 factories churn out Southern California’s hot dogs, pesticides, patio furniture and other widely used products. Trucks rumble off the I-710 freeway into sprawling freight rail yards. Odors of rotting animal carcasses waft through the family’s windows on hot summer nights.
The Martins also have endured years of illness.
From the time Anaiz Martin was born until she was a toddler, her father would carry her in his arms, his big mustache tickling her baby cheeks. This simple embrace carried a haunting consequence.
By age 3, Anaiz weighed just 19 pounds and could barely raise her head. Her parents said they were told by doctors that Salvador Martin’s mustache probably held sickening levels of lead from his plating factory job.
The heavy metal attacked her neurological system, permanently robbing her of critical learning skills.
Two decades later, her family’s woes continue. Anaiz, now 21, her mother and siblings – Adilene, 22, and Sal Jr., 18 – have suffered rashes, chronic nausea, diarrhea, asthma and depression.
Anaiz’s mother, Josefina, frets constantly about possible causes: the air they breathe, the ground beneath their home and the black, brown or yellow water that has intermittently run from their faucets for years.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t take it anymore,’ ” Josefina, 45, said during a 2010 interview. “I just want to know what’s going on with my family and all of this contamination.”
The USC Annenberg Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and California Watch commissioned tests to measure the family’s exposure levels to dangerous metals and industrial byproducts.
Americans have been randomly sampled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 30 years for chemicals linked to cancer, developmental disabilities and other problems, in a process known as biomonitoring. But some experts say one group has not been adequately sampled: people living in the shadow of industry.
The Martin family is among millions of Americans in similar circumstances – forced by their meager wages to live near industrial areas, including smokestacks, landfills, locomotives and other potential hazards. Yet because government officials make little attempt to dig deep into toxic exposure in ordinary people, it is impossible to know if they are unique or part of a much larger potential problem in neighborhoods across the nation.
Some business groups and researchers say that there is little evidence linking pollution to ill health in nearby residents, and that such areas are vital economic engines. Others counter that hundreds of animal and work studies, and emergency room records on smoggy days, have linked asthma, cancers, miscarriages, heart and lung problems to exposure to pollutants like those in and around Maywood.
“The prosperities of society are paid for with our bodies,” charged Maywood City Councilman Felipe Aguirre.
An ‘isle in a sea of industry’
The Martins’ home and their small city sit eight miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, at the crossroads of an American manufacturing and freight-hauling juggernaut. About 1 square mile, Maywood is the state’s most densely populated community. Nearly 50,000 residents – 98 percent Latino – are squeezed into aging apartments and cozy tract houses between a smorgasbord of pollutants.
It wasn’t always so. Named after a land agent’s secretary, Maywood was marketed in the early 1900s as pleasant farmland with deep artesian wells near a Los Angeles River bend. Around the same time, Los Angeles civic leaders took note of prevailing winds and zoned for odiferous slaughterhouses and other factories southeast of downtown. Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa, Firestone and others built factories. By the 1950s, Maywood was “a residential isle in a sea of industry,” according to a retired city clerk.
Today, the Martins roll up their car windows and cover their noses when they drive past rendering plants where euthanized shelter dogs, slaughterhouse remnants and fast food grease are recycled in makeup, pet food and other products. They live less than a mile downwind of one of the largest battery smelters in the West cited multiple times in the past decade for emitting illegal levels of lead; half a mile from a Superfund site; and close to one of the nation’s busiest truck routes.
Next to Maywood sits Vernon, with only about 100 residents, but with factories that employ 55,000 people. Officials say that while their city is not the prettiest, it is heavily regulated by federal, state and local agencies, and no dangerous emissions reach neighbors.
“Our businesses really want to be good citizens. … I’m not aware of any bad management of chemicals,” said Lewis Pozzebon, director of health and environmental control, who said the city’s fire and health departments also keep releases from spreading. “The philosophy that operates is, ‘What happens in Vernon has to stay in Vernon.’ ”
Yet, public records show tons of area air pollutants released annually, years of contaminated water readings, and troubling soil contamination near some shuttered and current manufacturers in Vernon, Maywood and other nearby communities.
Manganese levels in Maywood water were among the highest in the region, according to a 2010 consultant’s report required of Maywood Mutual Water Companies 1, 2, and 3. Records show the well two blocks from the Martins’ home routinely exceeded legal limits. Across town near the Superfund site, there were troubling levels of carcinogenic trichloroethylene. Maywood water officials have said they’re doing their best to replace aging equipment in a poor city, and that contamination levels are being reduced.
Manganese is a purplish-brown metal that is a necessary nutrient in small amounts. But chronic high exposure has been linked to severe neurological disorders. State health officials have not disclosed those risks to anxious residents, instead stating repeatedly in writing and at community forums that while manganese may stain laundry and isn’t pleasant to look at, there is no health risk.
In a December 2009 e-mail they said, “Manganese is a secondary standard that does not affect the health of consumers. Violations of primary standards, which do affect the health of consumers, are a higher priority.”
In a 2011 follow-up e-mail they said that information about manganese’s health risks are available on their website under the Consumer Confidence Reports, They would not comment on why they have failed to explain the hazards to residents whose drinking water exceeded safe limits.
Despite the area’s noxious brew, the Martins have called southeast Los Angeles home for decades.
It is where Salvador Sr. and Josefina were able to afford property. Their Catholic church, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, has helped Josefina keep faith through family illness and worry. Her mother, brother and other relatives live nearby. But her father died two years ago, and with her children sick and with discolored water in the sinks and shower, Josefina is not sure how much longer she can bear to stay.
One thing that would help is to know what’s inside her family.
She and her children agreed to be tested for more than two dozen heavy metals and dioxins.
They volunteer to fast for 24 hours, to have a substantial amount of blood and urine drawn and sent to Brooks Rand Labs in Seattle and other certified labs for analysis, and to share the results. Experts say the outcome could offer a snapshot of possible contamination because the family has lived in the same home for 19 years. Long-term exposure increases risk dramatically.
“I talked to my kids. I said this is good for us to do because we’re going to help other people to find out what’s going on, too,” Josefina said. “We want to know if it’s the water getting us sick, the air pollution or something else.”
The USC Annenberg Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and California Watch commissioned tests to measure a Maywood family’s exposure levels to dangerous metals and industrial byproducts.
Eastern Group Publications/EGPNews.com is publishing the results of those tests, as part of a three-part bilingual (English/Spanish) series written by Janet Wilson for California Watch.