The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to join a lawsuit aimed at keeping confidential the results of blood-lead level testing of children living near the now-closed Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.
On April 13, a trial court ordered the California Department of Health to release records regarding blood-lead level testing and related investigations dating from 2007-2015 to Exide Technologies, which made a request under the California Public Records Act. The public health agency has appealed the ruling, citing a privacy exception to the records act.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the First District where the plant was located, agreed.
“This request from Exide for highly personal and private information is another shameful attack and deflection of responsibility from those who profited from operating this harmful polluting facility,” Solis said. “The court decision fails to uphold our residents’ constitutional right to privacy.”
At Solis’ recommendation, the board voted 4-0 to file an amicus brief in support of the CDPH appeal. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas did not attend the meeting.
The CDPH said it has disclosed as much of the requested information as legally allowed.
In an email to City News Service, the agency said redacting patients’ names would not be sufficient to protect the identities of children tested because the data set includes many other variables and it is legally bound to protect that information.
Lead testing results are required to be reported to the state agency, but only to prevent and control lead poisoning.
“Disclosure of this information would constitute a breach of trust with these families,” a CDPH spokesman wrote.
Solis warned that if the court’s decision is not overturned and sensitive health information is released, it may be hard for public health officials to gain cooperation in future medical investigations.
The public health agency refused to turn over individual test information even to other government agencies, including the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is charged with cleaning up contaminated soil in the area. The CDPH chose instead to conduct its own analysis of the results, which it released in April 2016.
That analysis, based on blood-lead level tests of more than 11,700 youngsters living within 4.4 miles of the Exide site, found that “children with higher blood-lead levels lived slightly nearer to the Exide site and there was a moderate increase in risk associated with living less than a mile (away).”
However, it also found that the age of housing in various neighborhoods around the plant was an “important predictor” of blood-lead levels, with the number of children with higher lead levels found to be significantly higher in areas with pre-1940s housing. More lead hazards tend to be found in older housing stock.
The CDPH’s testing database — which Exide is seeking to access — includes information on the age of housing and investigators’ findings about the sources of lead causing elevated blood-lead levels, according to Solis’ motion.
Clean-up of contaminated soil in the area continues, as do complaints by both residents and officials about the slow pace of that work.
The Exide plant, which opened in 1922, was allowed to keep operating under a temporary permit for 33 years, despite continuing environmental violations. When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant in 2015, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup. In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown approved $176.6 million for testing and cleanup.
In March, state environmental regulators released maps identifying more than 2,000 properties near the former Exide plant with elevated lead concentrations in the soil. The interactive maps were based on tests conducted by the Department of Toxic Substances Control at 8,500 properties within 1.7 miles of the shuttered facility.
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