The lead emissions at a decades-old lead smelter operated by Exide Technologies Inc., which crushes and recycles used automotive and industrial batteries, are among the highest in the south-central U.S.
Tens of thousands of blood samples may be drawn to determine levels of lead in individuals living within two miles of the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, under a public health plan rolled out Thursday with a public informational session.
The testing will be offered at no cost, with the expense borne by Exide.
"We wanted to give people an opportunity to determine what is my own personal lead status," said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, who is overseeing the effort as Director of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
The initiative has been in the works for a year, Rangan said.
It is moving forward less than a month after a state-ordered environmental study found lead concentrations above "screening levels" in samples of soil taken from the yards of 39 homes in neighborhoods north and south of the Exide plant.
In all, several hundred samples were analyzed. Three of them came back at levels above the threshold considered potentially dangerous for children.
California's Toxic Substance Control Department indicated it believes Exide "likely" to be the source.
Elevated lead in young children can hinder development and intelligence, according to Rangan.
Some 30,000 notification letters were mailed, announcing the the blood-testing, and inviting residents to attend a question-and-answer session at the Commerce Doubletree Hotel.
"I had heard about it before, but never really paid it much attention till I got the written letter," said Pat, a resident of East LA who declined to share her last name. "Then I said, 'this is serious. I better look into it.'"
A private company, Quest Diagnostics, has been retained to handle the testing, which will be offered starting next Monday and continuing through September.
Residents can make appointments to have the blood samples drawn at one of the company's "patient service centers."
There are a dozen within seven miles of Exide, said Lee Lontoc, a Quest account executive.
Exide issued a statement supporting the screening effort.
"Exide remains fully committed to the safety of our employees, the surrounding community and the local environment," said E.N. "Bud" Desart, a senior director in Exide's recycling group.
Last month, in response to a directive from California's Toxic Substance Control Department, Exide devlivered a plan for further environmental testing, and to reduce risk of exposure for children and expectant mothers.
The Department is now reviewing that plan.
Most people have some lead in their systems, on the order of 10-20 micrograms per liter,
according to Rangan.
The "reference range" begins at 50 micrograms/liter; 150 is generally considered cause for intervention to determine the source of the lead, he said.
About 80 lead interventions are reported each year in Los Angeles County.
Historically, lead pollution comes from lead used in paint and gasoline, before both those applications were banned in the 1970s.
"Right now, the limited data we do have in this area does not suggest any kind of an emergency
for the children who are there," said Rangan. "Embarking on this screening program will give us a lot more data so we can be more confident about those kinds of results."
The Exide Plant continues to operate under a temporary permit that will expire at the end of 2015. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has called for the plant's closure.
The Department of Public Health has set up an information desk reachable by calling 844-888-2290.