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Lead found in babies’ teeth near Exide plant

LOS ANGELES — Children in neighborhoods surrounding the shuttered Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon had lead in their baby teeth, with the concentrations rising consistent with the amount of lead found on their families’ properties, according to a new USC study.

“We found the higher the level of lead in the soil, the higher the amount of lead in baby teeth,” Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. “There’s no safe level of lead. It’s a potent neurotoxin. Our study provides insight into the legacy of the impact of industrial contamination on children.”

Researchers said there have been few studies on lead in teeth, but their findings showed that baby teeth from children near the Exide plant had double the amount of lead found in a similar study conducted in Boston.

According to the study, which was published in the May 5 edition of Environmental Science & Technology, USC researchers examined 50 baby teeth from 43 children in the communities of Boyle Heights, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Commerce and Huntington Park. Teeth from Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles children showed the highest levels of lead, followed by Maywood, Huntington Park and Commerce.

According to the study, higher exposure was noted in some cases as occurring while the baby was still in the womb, indicating that the mother’s lead exposure was passed onto her unborn child.

Researchers matched the lead levels in teeth with soil contamination figures gathered by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control — showing a correlation between soil-lead levels and the amount of led in baby teeth.

“Higher lead in teeth means higher lead in the brain, kidney and bones,” Johnston said. “Testing women for lead during pregnancy, or even earlier, as they enter child-bearing age, may be needed to decrease lead exposure to their future offspring.”

Reaction was swift from a local Catholic priest who has been at the forefront of protests regarding the Exide plant.

Father John Moretta from Resurrection Catholic Church in East Los Angeles criticized the state Department of Toxic Substances Control for not doing enough about the environmental damage caused by the Exide plant.

“A public health crisis of this magnitude requires decisive action, and so far DTSC’s response has lacked any sense of urgency,” Moretta said. “Families in our community are already paying the price of this agency’s failure — and will continue to do so for generations to come. It’s time to hold DTSC to account for their negligence, so nothing like this ever happens again.”

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, who represents most of the area surveyed by USC, also commented on the study. 

“We must hold Exide and corporate polluters responsible for the horrors their reckless polluting has wrought on the communities in my district,” Santiago said. “But it isn’t just Exide who’s responsible — for over three decades the Department of Toxic Substances Control blew it, and the consequences have been grave. We’ve got to fully fund and fix this crisis immediately. Our families depend on it.

 “The USC study got it right — there is no safe level of lead, anywhere,” Santiago added. “Now we’re seeing mothers passing these life-threatening toxins to their babies in the womb. This is an emergency of the highest order, and DTSC needs to act like it. We won’t stop fighting until our children are healthy and safe.”

Staff and Wire Reports