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The hidden poisoning of poor children at an L.A. housing complex

The soil is laced with lead and arsenic in yards where children play.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/AP Images
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/AP Images

Moving to Jordan Downs in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles meant Nuvia Perez’s children would finally have the space to be kids.

Her family — her husband and three children ages 13, seven, and two — had been living in incredibly cramped quarters, sharing one bedroom of a two-bedroom house and subletting the other to another family just so they could afford their rent.

That all changed when they got to the Jordan Downs public housing complex about two years ago. They moved into a unit that allowed each of her children to have a bedroom of their own. “When we moved here, we were really excited, because we can afford to live here with our whole family and have that whole space,” she said, speaking in Spanish through a translator.

That feeling of freedom and space has shrunk considerably since then, however.

Within a few months of moving in, Perez started hearing about health concerns from her neighbors, particularly about toxins like lead and arsenic. She didn’t get too concerned at first. But she started to get worried when the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), which owns and operates Jordan Downs, changed its messaging from saying the area was free of health risks to telling residents not to worry about carcinogens. “I knew something was different if now they were changing the message and talking about contamination,” she noted.

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The Perez family lives steps away from the site of an old steel mill — the site is just outside their front door. While she hasn’t had her own yard — or her children’s blood — tested, she said some of her neighbors have found high levels of lead in their yards.

Perez has become so afraid of the health impacts on her children that she hasn’t let them play in the yard for almost a year. “They used to be able to go outside all the time,” she said. “But now they’ve stopped asking, because they know it’s dangerous.”

No one told her about the contamination before she moved her family to Jordan Downs. If they had, she might have done things differently. “I wish I would have been informed, because we would have made a different decision,” she said. “But they didn’t tell us anything about what was going on.”

Daniel Rendon playing at Jordan Downs in 2009. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Daniel Rendon playing at Jordan Downs in 2009. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

She’s not the only one who’s worried. Health and environmental safety at Jordan Downs have been thrust to the forefront as HACLA has moved ahead with an ambitious billion-dollar project to demolish and rebuild all of the buildings in the complex, a project that includes new construction on a lot of land the housing authority recently purchased. That land is the former site of a steel factory and then a truck repair shop, and the soil is tainted with toxins including lead, arsenic, and cadmium.

And yet there is no plan to clean up environmental toxins at the residential site or to protect residents who live steps away from the construction sites and who might be at risk.

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HACLA bought the old factory site in 2008, intending to build a new housing facility on the parcel. The agency planned to move residents around during the construction to allow building and demolition to happen in waves. At the time of the purchase, the new parcel of land still housed fuel oil and gasoline storage tanks, storage areas for waste oil and other unidentified liquids, a furnace that was used to melt iron scraps, and spots of stained soil from oil spills, according to an internal HACLA memo from 2010.

It was almost by accident that knowledge of the site’s contamination became public. In 2012, the LA Human Right to Housing Collective submitted a public records request to investigate what it saw as an abnormal number of evictions happening at Jordan Downs.

But those documents revealed more than evictions. The files contained memos from the years after the factory site was purchased between high-level HACLA executives describing potential contamination on the site from its past uses, as well as the possibility that contamination had migrated into the existing residential areas where people — including the Perez family — were already living.

“Over and over and over, I kept seeing this questionable and concerning information around the factory site,” said Thelmy Perez, a coordinator at the LA Human Right to Housing Collective.

One internal memo to the director of development at HACLA urged the agency to do a full assessment of the site and create a remediation plan. The documents showed it would have cost about $10,000 to fully test the land that was already inhabited, a fraction of the $31 million HACLA spent to buy the factory site. That testing wasn’t carried out.

An image of the second plume of contaminated water from a HACLA board presentation
An image of the second plume of contaminated water from a HACLA board presentation

On top of the concerns about the factory’s contamination of the soil, the LA Human Right to Housing Collective has raised red flags about two different plumes of potentially contaminated water underground. One plume is the result of a pipeline breach that occurred decades ago a block north of Jordan Downs, releasing gasoline fuel, which is being cleaned up by its owner Exxon Mobile. But the other has been found directly under the new plot of land and no one has claimed responsibility for the spill or cleanup. “Because it does not have a responsible party, it has been identified and is just sitting there unmitigated,” Thelmy Perez said.

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In 2014, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) finally tested 30 soil samples taken from Jordan Downs, but advocates characterize the testing as very limited. The analysis found that lead concentrations in the soil ranged from 22.8 parts per million (ppm) to 145 ppm. At 80 ppm or above, the state determines a cause for concern for health risks. Fourteen of the samples exceeded that level, although the threshold has no regulatory heft and is only advisory. The analysis also found that cadmium levels exceeded the threshold in 13 of the 30 samples, with one sample seven times higher the state’s threshold for concern.

But HACLA decided not to clean up Jordan Downs: The month after it published that analysis, it issued an update to the community saying that it had determined no further action was required. As an explanation, its fact sheet said that the tests revealed contamination “at the same level as soil found in urban Los Angeles.” It also said that because the average of the samples it tested for lead came to 81.3 ppm, it was “essentially the same as the screening level.”

Jenny Scanlin, the director of development services at HACLA, said in an emailed statement, “The safety and health of Jordan Downs residents is HACLA’s constant and primary concern” and reiterated the position that its own testing has shown “that there is no immediate or long-term risk to human health and safety on site at Jordan Downs.” She added, “All potential contaminants tested for were at levels either of non-detect or at levels consistent with the same metals and chemicals found in soil or air throughout the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area and not considered actionable.”

A spokesperson for the DTSC said in an email, “The demolition project is not under DTSC oversight,” noting that it has requested that HACLA conduct further testing and has received some results that it is reviewing.

At the end of 2015, a public record request revealed the officials at the DTSC who were in charge of coming to the determination that nothing needed to be done had concurrently been sending racist emails between themselves. Emails in which they used terms such as “injun,” “crackho hooker,” and “Hop Sing” were made public.

“Those were the people who oversaw this ‘no further action’ determination at Jordan Downs,” said Alexander Harnden, an attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which is part of the coalition that has been advocating for residents along with the LA Human Right to Housing Collective and Physicians for Social Responsibility. Harnden estimates that the Jordan Downs community is 70 percent Latino and 30 percent black.

A photo of a construction site at Jordan Downs kicking up potentially toxic dust taken by Harnden’s organization
A photo of a construction site at Jordan Downs kicking up potentially toxic dust taken by Harnden’s organization

The coalition decided to take matters into its own hands: members used an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to test soil at 104 spots in Jordan Downs. “All of those came back very high,” Harnden noted. Specifically, over half of the samples showed lead levels above 80 ppm, with about a third of them above 100 ppm. The group found a sample at 346 ppm, more than four times higher than the state’s threshold of concern. The coalition also found high levels of arsenic — with many samples exceeding the state’s threshold — cadmium, mercury, and antimony.

If all of these toxins have been compacted into the soil over the years, there’s a risk that demolitions will disturb it and kick toxins up into the air. HACLA’s Scanlin characterized the coalition’s testing and subsequent results as “continued misinformation spread by unregulated tests conducted by the advocacy community.”

But advocates maintain that these results should be cause for concern. “Given that the housing authority is proposing to spend a billion dollars of public money, we think there’s definitely room in the budget to make sure all of the residents are safe,” Harnden said. “We’re not against the modernization of Jordan Downs… but they shouldn’t be forced to choose between that and protecting their children.”

Residents agree, and they have been organizing with the coalition to pressure HACLA. “They’re asking themselves, ‘Why are we always sick? Could it be from this factory site, could it be from this land?’” Thelmy Perez said.

Jordan Downs resident Emma Cortez believes her house has made her sick. For the past two years or so, she’s dealt with difficulties breathing, which feels like dust caught in her throat. “I can’t breathe and I can’t cough and it’s always there,” she said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. Her doctor told her that it’s an allergy that was probably caused by some kind of contamination. She says testing revealed lead at a level of 196 ppm in her front yard at Jordan Downs. She doesn’t know what other toxins may be lurking there.

She’s also not the only one with health issues. Her two daughters, who were very young when she moved to the housing complex, both experience frequent nosebleeds. She has a number of friends in the community whose children are autistic; one friend has two children with autism. Two of her friends at Jordan Downs have died of cancer.

Monika Shankar, land use and health coordinator at Physicians for Social Responsibility, has seen many health problems at Jordan Downs, including reproductive issues like low birth weights and mental health disorders. She’s also seen cancer and asthma plague residents, and she’s heard them talk about their children who can’t focus at school and deal with development disorders like ADHD. “The ones we’re concerned with are directly tied to contaminants found in the community,” she said, such as lead and arsenic.

And while no comprehensive blood testing data is yet available, she said that a health professional who works in the Watts neighborhood has noticed over the last year and a half that blood lead levels get higher the closer to Jordan Downs the patient lives.

Even with all of these troubling signs, a lot of data is missing. Residents and advocates have repeatedly argued that HACLA and the DTSC need to do comprehensive testing of both the existing residential areas and the factory site at Jordan Downs.

In September, HACLA conducted more testing of 56 soil samples at four demolition sites, although it said at the time that it wouldn’t wait for the results before moving forward with building plans. Those tests found lead levels as high as 147 ppm in some places, although the report once again averaged them out and found an average level of 80.15 ppm. It also found arsenic levels that exceeded the threshold of concern.

“This assessment has not identified Title-22 metals, including lead and arsenic, at concentrations that indicate an unacceptable human health risk to the residents of the Jordan Downs Housing Community,” it concludes. “No further investigation of risk to human health… is warranted.”

Scanlin added in her emailed statement, “HACLA will continue to test soils, as a normal course of business, as it moves forward with the redevelopment of Jordan Downs and continues to ensure all required mitigations are in place during construction and demolition so the work conducted on site does not have a negative impact on the health or well-being of our tenants.”

A map of HACLA’s testing with Harnden’s markings of all readings at 80 ppm or more
A map of HACLA’s testing with Harnden’s markings of all readings at 80 ppm or more

Harnden looked at a map of all the lead levels the DTSC reported, however, and found lots of room for concern, although he reiterates that his opinion has no legal or scientific import. “There are clearly hot spots and corridors of hot spots where there’s a real problem,” he said. That should at least indicate that there’s reason to investigate further, he added.

Yet those four buildings where the testing was done have already been demolished. “The question is, has that stuff been spread around?” Harnden asked. It “generates questions about where that stuff went during the demolition and was there proper protection in place.” The next phase of demolition begins next month.

Meanwhile, residents are living right next to a potentially toxic construction site. “When buildings are being demolished, there are families living not even across the street — ten feet away, right there,” Thelmy Perez said. “There are families that are living right next door.”

The 2,400 residents of Jordan Downs have particular reason to be concerned — the majority are children, mostly under the age of 10. Children are the population most vulnerable to lead poisoning, as they are more likely to absorb it and suffer ill effects on brain development. “The community is very susceptible to all of the negative effects of lead contamination,” Harnden said.

While HACLA had originally promised to take protective measures, Harnden’s group has documented plenty of ways that promise has fallen by the wayside. The housing authority had shown people pictures of windscreens and tarp coverings to keep soil and other materials at bay — but many construction sites sit exposed. “What we’ve seen on the ground has been like night and day with what was shown to residents” in preliminary meetings, he said.

In response, Scanlin said, “There are numerous mitigations and practices imposed and followed by all contractors on site to contain and dispose of contaminants. Some but not all of these practices include the use of green screens, high walls and fences, tarping, regular watering of soil as well as the use of soil cement.”

Left: an image of a windscreen shown to residents by HACLA before the demolition. Right: An actual windscreen on the construction site, leaving parts exposed.
Left: an image of a windscreen shown to residents by HACLA before the demolition. Right: An actual windscreen on the construction site, leaving parts exposed.

One simple request residents have made is to turn on the water spigots, which they say have been reduced to a trickle or turned off entirely per HACLA’s drought policy. “Our lawns are so dry, and it makes it so that there’s a lot of dust in the air and the children track dust in the house,” Nuvia Perez said. The coalition has made the same demand.

In her emailed statement, HACLA’s Scanlin said, “The water has always been on at Jordan Downs and residents have the right to utilize the water for their lawns and plants. Residents can access water through the spigots outside their units and are requested to comply with LADWP water usage requirements for the City of Los Angeles.”

Thelmy Perez points out that HACLA has fitted working spigots with devices that staunch water flow to a thin tickle — not enough to water yards to mitigate dust or keep grass and trees alive. If residents tamper with the devices, she says, their spouts are sealed permanently.

Residents also want to see more transparency and communication. New families are moving in without being informed of the potential health risks, which means that many people may not know the steps they could take to protect themselves and their children from exposure. That would include, of course, comprehensive testing of both the soil and residents’ blood.

“I doubt that what we’re asking would add even one percent to the budget,” Harnden said. “It’s a crying shame that with that level of public investment we’re not investing in the health of the residents.”

On top of all of the health risks are the usual concerns that come with the redevelopment of public housing. Residents are worried about displacement and rising rents, particularly because any new units added as part of this project will be private, not public, housing. One study found that just 14 percent of the original residents of public housing complexes that were rebuilt through a government grant were still living in them after redevelopment.

“We’re worried we may not qualify for a unit or it’s going to be too expensive for us,” Cortez said. “I want to stay here. That’s why I’m fighting.”

Nuvia Perez also wants to stay at Jordan Downs. “I hope that they allow us to move to a safe place that is clean — the soil and the land and the air,” she said.

“What is the alternative for us?” she added. “To move back into a cramped space sharing quarters with another family? That’s not right for our kids, either.”

This post has been updated with a statement from HACLA as well as information from Thelmy Perez about water accessibility.