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Biomonitoring pinpoints chemicals absorbed by body

Daniel A. Anderson/California WatchThe Los Angeles River is a dividing line between Maywood and adjacent cities. By the 1950s, the city was “a residential isle in a sea of industry,” according to a retired city clerk.

Sophisticated instruments have made it possible to analyze our blood, urine and hair for trace amounts of chemicals in a process known as biomonitoring.

The results, a snapshot of exactly what’s in your body, are known as a bioburden, and everyone has one.

It’s a price of modern living. Plastics, mattresses and beef all can carry hazards. Federal scientists have done biomonitoring on Americans for 25 years for a small number of the thousands of chemicals linked to cancer, developmental disabilities and other health problems.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not publish its findings by geographic location, however. The agency also typically doesn’t inform people who are tested of the results. Instead, officials compile anonymous, population-wide averages, which they say offer a more complete picture.

Some experts say people living in the shadow of industry have not been adequately sampled.

“There’s a big hole out there in current biomonitoring,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a UC Berkeley associate professor who researches poor communities and environmental health disparities. 

A 2007 study by four universities found that low-income, nonwhites are far more likely to live near hazardous waste. In Oakland; Elizabeth, N.J.; the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago; Houston; and elsewhere, people live near shipping ports, power plants and factories and breathe dirty air or drink foul water. 

There is disagreement about biomonitoring and about potential sources of harm. Some business groups and researchers say that there is little evidence linking industrial pollution to health effects on nearby residents and that such areas are vital economic engines.

Next door to Maywood is the city of Vernon, which employs 55,000 people in industrial plants but has only about 100 residents.  Factories “exclusively industrial” Vernon employ mostly area immigrants and make widely used products.

Vernon officials say that while their city is not the prettiest, it is heavily regulated by federal, state and local regulators, and no dangerous emissions reach neighbors. They also say there is little evidence linking industrial pollution to health effects on nearby residents.

“Our businesses really want to be good citizens. … I’m not aware of any bad management of chemicals,” said Lewis Pozzebon, Vernon’s 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 toxic air pollutants released annually, years of contaminated water readings, and troubling soil contamination near some shuttered and current manufacturers in Vernon, Maywood and other cities in the immediate vicinity. 

There is a potential cost. Hundreds of animal and occupational studies have found links between serious disease and exposure to pollutants of the type in and around Maywood, from cancers to heart and lung problems to asthma.

“The prosperities of society are paid for with our bodies,” said Maywood City Councilman Felipe Aguirre.


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