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Putting faces on the story takes months of preparation

Carrie Ching/California Watch

There are 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States. To test a typical family living in the shadow of heavy industry, I combed through government records to identify top pollutants in southeast Los Angeles. I quizzed academics and government scientists, including the head of the federal biomonitoring program and state toxics and air pollution specialists, and narrowed the list to 25 heavy metals and dioxins.

In search of a family willing to be tested and share their results publicly, I went door to door around a Superfund cleanup and along other streets near industry. I found an intelligent, outraged woman whose 38-year-old husband had a type of cancer linked in studies to the industry in which he worked. They worried

about their two daughters as well. They were eager to be tested at first, but as the day neared, they changed their minds. The process began again, phoning community groups, area doctors and local officials. Someone knew someone who knew the Martins. 

Josefina Martin’s story poured out as soon as we began to talk. She had lost her father a year earlier and feared asbestos played a role. She had grappled for two decades with her beautiful, quiet young daughter’s exposure to lead. She persuaded everyone except her husband to be tested. The family agreed to make their results public because they wanted to help others worried about pollution in their community. 

On the day of taking blood and urine samples, Josefina and her children were listless from fasting but resolute. The clinic manager quietly told me her son had suffered lead poisoning, too. 

After months of preparation and the drawing of substantial amounts of blood, the overnight express company took two days rather than one to deliver the dioxin samples to Canada. They arrived slightly warmer than formally recognized by protocol. 

Several scientists said the results still would be good. But was it really wise to risk nearly $5,000 on analyzing the samples if they were going to be questioned? The family ultimately agreed to undergo the process again. I triple-checked that the dry ice was in the right place, and we switched to a closer lab in central California. The next day, the manager assured me the samples had arrived within the prescribed temperature range.

Once the results came, several government experts did not respond to requests for comment, even though they had advised me beforehand. 

I spoke with medical doctors familiar with heavy metals and dioxins and university scientists and other environmental health specialists familiar with biomonitoring. They offered a range of opinions on immediate risk. But on long-term risk, there was general agreement: If the family’s levels of several of the substances stayed that high, it spelled potentially serious harm for them in coming years.

The Martins deserved to be fully informed but not panicked. I found an empathetic, terrific doctor to deliver their results and arranged for them to speak with environmental health specialists over the next few months.  

The results were a snapshot, with some troubling findings. I still wonder about the mercury and the chromium. But we could not afford to do comprehensive follow-up testing, public health regulators were not interested, and the Martins have extremely limited medical options. Several experts said that points to larger troubling gaps. Josefina plans to share the information with doctors when she can.

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