Adilene has braced herself for this moment.
“I’m not saying we should have something inside us,” she says as the Martin family drives to the doctor’s office in January. “But it’ll be disappointing if nothing comes up and the water’s still coming out like that.”
The USC Annenberg Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and California Watch commissioned tests to measure her family’s exposure levels to dangerous metals and industrial byproducts that could be coming from their surroundings.
Adilene, her mother and siblings gave blood and urine samples months earlier to determine to what extent 25 chemicals were present in their bodies. The substances were selected because of their prevalence in the industrial corridor around their hometown of Maywood, where dirty water has run from their taps for years, and which has some of the nation’s worst air pollution.
Finally, it’s time for answers.
The Martin family had traces of all eight dangerous heavy metals and 17 industrial byproducts in their bodies. Levels of arsenic, chromium, mercury, manganese and vanadium were far higher than for most Americans.
Adilene, 22, had very high amounts of vanadium in her blood, and her brother and sister exceeded national averages. Vanadium, a silvery-blue substance, is in some foods and supplements, but industrial fumes and dust can cause respiratory illness, and it is a possible carcinogen.
Her 18-year-old brother, Salvador Jr., had arsenic amounts in his urine that appeared to be above all Americans his age tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arsenic can be harmless, but the wrong kind in high amounts has been linked to liver, lung, kidney and bladder cancers. It is not clear what kind is in Junior, as his family calls him. A recent study showed patients reported tingling of hands and feet at arsenic levels about twice what his were.
Both of them – as well as their 21-year-old sister Anaiz and their mother, Josefina, 45 – had higher levels of manganese than 95 percent of Americans tested. Manganese is a murky water pollutant that can cause Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms with high chronic exposure. California Department of Public Health officials have not informed Maywood residents of its risks for years, saying it only causes cosmetic problems with laundry, for instance.
All four family members had mercury levels that caused one doctor to recommend a state investigation of their home and neighborhood for sources. Mercury of the wrong kind is extremely toxic and can damage or fatally injure the brain, nervous system and kidneys in small amounts.
“There are some extraordinarily high numbers here; I’m puzzled and surprised they were exposed to that much mercury,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, a UC San Francisco clinical professor who treats patients for environmental contamination.
Solomon, also a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, recommended the state Department of Public Health investigate the family’s mercury exposure and possible sources. Department officials declined.
Headaches, fatigue and depression similar to the symptoms reported by Josefina and Anaiz have been reported in patients overexposed to mercury. Many chemicals, including vanadium or chlorine used to treat their water, could cause rashes like those on Adilene’s arms.
U.S. averages for copper aren’t available, but the Martins’ were two to five times higher than those for Germans. It is a necessary nutrient, but high levels have been linked to nose, mouth and eye irritation; nausea; stomach cramps; vomiting; and death. It is a possible carcinogen.
They had average levels of lead, cadmium, dioxins and furans. But experts caution that there are no known safe levels of lead or dioxins. The dioxins are the same type of powerful carcinogens released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into the air around Maywood streets in 1998 during its cleanup of the Superfund site. They can linger in landfills, unused attics and body tissue for years.
Josefina reacts first, laughing shakily.
“Well, I never expected all this, but it’s good to know what we have inside,” she says.
Long-term exposure increases risks, experts say
Numerous doctors and scientists who specialize in environmental contamination reviewed the results. Most said they didn’t think the Martins were at immediate risk. While some of the levels were extremely high compared with average Americans, they are trace amounts, which do not typically cause immediate harm, but can be deadly over time. The Martins had very high trace amounts of some substances, high enough in some cases that one doctor thought they might be experiencing clinically noticeable, immediate effects, as well as long-term risk. For arsenic, chromium and mercury, it would depend on the type to which they were exposed. Follow-up testing showed that Salvador Jr. did not have the dangerous kind of arsenic in him.
But experts agreed that if the family members continue to be exposed at higher levels, they face steeper odds of cancers and other serious health effects. Like tobacco smoke or radiation, these chemicals can build up for years in body fat or tissue, exacting a long-term toll.
“That’s what I worry about a lot more,” said Scott Fruin, assistant professor of environmental health at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “There’s definitely something strange going on there. … Some of the heavy metals were unusually high.”
Scant research has been done on how combinations of chemicals can work together, several noted. All said that identifying sources was no easy task. The Martins eat fish and beef and use household cleaning products.
“The great part of biomonitoring is it tells you exactly what’s in your body,” said Solomon. “The Achilles’ heel is it doesn’t tell you the sources.”
But all of the substances present in them also are present in exhaust or manufacturing within a mile of their home. Nearby chemical processors and other industries could be sources if they were off gassing substances improperly, Solomon said. The substances can enter the body via air, water or ground vapors. Even garden soil can collect contaminants.
Living where they do increases the odds not just for them, but also for their neighbors, some said.
“When you think of the hundreds of families who live in very similar situations in their neighborhood, for each of these excessive exposures, they could be representative of many other people,” said Sonya Lunder, a public health analyst with the Environmental Working Group, which does biomonitoring.
State Dept. of Public Health regulators declined to do testing or investigate.
“If the family has concerns about their lab test results, they should contact their clinical medical doctor,” Dr. Rick Kreutzer, chief of the state Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control, said in an e-mail.
The family’s COBRA benefits from Sal’s job had expired. The one nationally certified environmental health clinic in Los Angeles County, at UCLA, was closing.
Ruthann Rudel, a toxicologist and director of research for the Silent Spring Institute near Boston, which examines cancers and environmental factors, said she was not surprised by the Martins’ biomonitoring results, their difficulty getting follow-up care or officials’ lack of interest.
She said regulators routinely are underfunded and subject to political pressures, while most doctors across the U.S. are poorly trained in environmental health issues. The gap is even greater in poor communities that have fewer doctors and potentially face greater hazards.
Some regulators agree there are hazards.
“These communities are under attack,” said Florence Gharibian, recently retired manager for the Southern California Enforcement and Emergency Response Program of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. In conjunction with the EPA’s Los Angeles office, her staff is preparing a report on water contamination underneath communities surrounding the I-710 freeway. They did limited sampling in front of homes, including at the Martins’, which raised red flags. They plan to do more. In the meantime, they advised the families to run the tap for five full minutes first thing in the morning.
Critics note some of the substances detected in the Martins are not monitored or regulated in the U.S., including manganese, vanadium, copper, and carcinogenic forms of chromium. “It’s an unconscionable gap,” said Solomon.
Davis Baltz with Commonweal, a California nonprofit that does biomonitoring, said he thought the Martins’ results actually were like most Americans’, with spikes in particular substances that could be fleeting, while others could signal serious risk.
He said all biomonitoring illustrates the need for a national overhaul of chemicals testing and regulation.
Baltz said: “Until we get a handle on how we regulate them … we’re going to have continued medical evidence piling up.”
Josefina is satisfied – she has information to take to a doctor when she can afford to see one. Salvador Jr. hates the results, and wishes he didn’t know what was inside of him. Anaiz is relieved not to have the highest levels, and doggedly earns her high school equivalency diploma at the dining room table.
But by fall she is sick again.
Salvador Sr. and neighbors were able to take control of the Maywood No. 2 water board. They convinced Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) to spearhead a law addressing Maywood water. In May, for the first time in years, manganese levels in No. 2’s supply did not exceed state limits. However, disinfectants that carry their own long-term risks are mixed in the water. Funding has been obtained to clean up the tainted well two blocks from the Martins’ neat yellow home.
But by October, the dirty water has returned. Sal and his fellow board members are struggling to figure out whether the new treatment plant isn’t working, or something else has gone wrong.
Meanwhile, Adilene is taking one nursing class – all she can afford.
“When I grow up, I want to move out of here,” she says.
Janet Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was produced in collaboration with the USC Annenberg Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and California Watch, part of the nonprofit independent Center for Investigative Reporting.