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How an investigative reporter’s hunch on lead turned into legislation

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

How an investigative reporter’s hunch on lead turned into legislation

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As I write this essay, the California Assembly and the State Senate have passed a worker protection bill that sprung from my project as a 2017 California Data Fellow and now awaits a decision by Gov. Jerry Brown about whether to sign it into law.

Among AB 2963’s supporters is state Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont). “If you had a family member or a friend exposed to high blood lead levels, you would want to see immediate action taken to reduce that exposure,” Wieckowski told me. “The health and safety of all workers should be the top priority.”

The bill picked up momentum after my Center for Health Journalism data reporting fellowship supported an investigation that revealed workers at the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, had for decades been exposed to toxic levels of lead so high that hundreds became lead poisoned.

Even more outrageous, data and public health records we obtained revealed the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) knew about the problem but for years failed to refer cases to another agency, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA. Unlike CDPH, Cal/OSHA has the power to levy fines and require mandatory changes. 

The problems with lead poisoned workers are not limited to former Exide workers. Our investigation found that at least 80 companies — including one that recently dismantled parts of the iconic San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge — continue to have workers in California who are lead poisoned at levels high enough to cause birth defects, tremors and a variety of brain disorders.

The proposed legislation, AB 2963, authored by San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), would make it mandatory for CDPH to turn over cases where workers are seriously lead poisoned (blood lead levels above 25 micrograms per deciliter) to Cal/OSHA for inspection and possible enforcement actions.

As I reflect on my year of reporting, three lessons stand out:

1) If you are given answers that dont add up, relentlessly push for an explanation that does. If what you are being told still doesn’t make sense, expose the problem.

I got started on this journey in April 2016. That’s when I learned that a 50-year-old city-run indoor gun range in Sacramento, not far from where I live with two daughters, had recently closed because lead levels inside the range were hundreds of times above federal limits. The problem was bad outside the building, too. Unbeknownst to the community, lead also had spewed out the building through an antiquated ventilation system. My initial reporting for ABC10 in Sacramento and Capital & Main revealed that a park popular with families and children was also badly contaminated. The park had to be fenced off for months while an expensive, publically funded cleanup took place. 

Then I found out something really stunning through a public records request. Over the years, workers who cleaned the range and several gun range instructors had contracted lead poisoning. The cases had been reported through blood tests to CDPH. But the agency failed to refer the case to Cal/OSHA. The problem lingered with no public knowledge. Boy Scout troops continued to use the range to learn shooting skills. And kids continued to play soccer and hide and seek around a toxic building.

CDPH’s explanation to me about their failure to act felt tone deaf, especially considering the then-emerging Flint water crisis. “The Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (OLPPP), within the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), is a non-enforcement, educational program,” a spokesperson told me over email, adding that, “OLPPP does not have a blood lead level threshold for referral to Cal/OSHA.”

That last part is important and the crux of the new bill that Governor Brown now has the opportunity to sign into law. The majority of states (27) are federal OSHA states. But California runs its own OSHA program. Federal OSHA states do have a blood lead threshold (25 micrograms per deciliter). California, I learned, had no such guidelines for red-flagging serious lead poisoning cases.

CDPH’s bureaucratic answers contrasted with the wrenching accounts I was hearing firsthand from lead poisoning victims.

In Sacramento, I met with a gun range instructor whose blood lead levels had exceeded 40 micrograms per deciliter. His life had been turned upside down by lead-related symptoms, which included memory loss, impotence, anger, tremors and weakness.  Although he was courageously seeking help, the lead poisoning caused tremendous challenges for his career and marriage.

It wasn’t that I thought the folks at CDPH’s Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program were monsters. The program’s primary mission is to educate companies about the seriousness of lead poisoning. That’s a good thing. But CDPH didn’t seem to be contemplating the impact of their lack of reporting these lead poisoning cases to enforcement officers.  

I didn’t know this was a statewide problem that needed exposing. Given how this one gun range in Sacramento had been handled, I just had a hunch that it was.

To be honest, as a freelancer with bills to pay and a family to support, I may have never taken this on. Then an email landed in my inbox in July 2017 from Martha Shirk at the Center for Health Journalism. “I recently came across your excellent investigative pieces for Capital & Main about hazards from lead pollution in Sacramento,” she wrote. She let me know about a data reporting fellowship with an impending deadline. I decided to apply with a proposal to get to the bottom of whether there was a statewide problem in California when it came to protecting workers from a powerful neurotoxin. 

2) Be strategic with public records act requests. 

In California, requests made under California’s Public Records Act are often called PRAs. As journalists we can request just about anything, but in doing so we are creating public costs. I believe PRAs are a two-way street where reporters have responsibilities, too.

Investigative journalism is one area where fishing expeditions are essential, but in general you should cast your line where there is some evidence that there are likely to be fish. If you make an enormous, unfocused PRA, the agency may view you as an obsessive nuisance, and your request could take years to fulfill. 

My initial goal was to test my hypothesis and see if the Sacramento gun range had been an anomaly. I started with the biggest, low-hanging fruit when it comes to lead issues in California, the former Exide plant in Vernon, California, not far from downtown Los Angeles.

The Exide battery recycling plant was a huge polluter and was shutdown in 2014 after the company accepted a deal to avoid federal criminal prosecution. The plant is mothballed, but California is still dealing with the legacy of Exide. An estimated 10,000 homes need to be scrubbed from lead. The state legislature has committed $174 million for the job, but that won’t be enough to tackle such a vast problem.

In my Exide PRA, I requested blood lead data going back 40 years and emails and letters between CDPH and Exide. 

I would have never thought to go that far back. But my project reporting advisor, Wall Street Journal data guru Paul Overberg, suggested a longer look back to get more of a historical look at the problem. Overberg also pointed out that the health impacts from lead can become more pronounced later in life, so it would be good to know about workers who had been poisoned decades ago.

When I got the data back from Exide, I realized that the problem of lead-poisoned workers was worse than I could have imagined. And the email communications and letters showed that while CDPH had been at times very concerned about the lead problem, communication about workers with high levels of lead in their blood was nearly nonexistent between Cal/OSHA and CDPH.  Between 1994 and 2014, CDPH tracked over 2,300 cases of workers with blood-lead levels at or above 25 micrograms per deciliter at Exide’s Vernon plant; yet CDPH referred the Vernon plant for an inspection to Cal/OSHA just once, in 1996.

The problem of lead-poisoned workers appeared vast. It was at this point I decided to make the big kahuna of PRA requests — looking at elevated blood lead levels at every company in California going back to 1990.

3) Don’t wait to alert policy wonks that they may want to consider a legislative fix. 

In early 2018, as I tracked down lead experts and victims and poured through thousands of pages of documents, I wondered if it might make sense for California to make a legislative fix to protect workers.

A conversation with Clyde Payne, who was the area director of U.S. OSHA’s Jackson, Mississippi, office for 23 years really got me thinking. Payne said it was often challenging for companies to reduce levels of lead that can harm workers, “but if you do not have somebody riding your rear end, you won’t try.” Payne also told me about a program called the National Emphasis Program on Lead, which requires inspections when workers have lead levels above 25 micrograms per deciliter.

Don’t California workers deserve these same protections, I wondered?

I met with Bill Allayuad, Legislative Director of the Environmental Working Group and a savvy political networker who knows how to work the halls of the state capital in Sacramento. I shared with Bill what I was learning, including the data and how a majority of other states have systems with objective standards for lead-poisoned workers that require compliance inspections. Allayuad posed sometimes exasperating questions aimed at figuring out if this issue was really in need of a legislative fix. In the end he was convinced.

By the time my story came out, Allayaud already had written draft legislation and found an author to carry the bill, Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose). if this hadn’t been in the works, the opportunity to draft a bill in time for the 2018 legislative cycle would have been lost, and more importantly, momentum from the stories would have likely dissipated. 

At an assembly hearing Kalra read a letter from Alvin Richardson and his wife LaShawn. Alvin Richardson worked as a lead smelter at Exide for 25 years and I reached out to him after I read he was exposed to airborne lead levels 30-times above federal standards. Richardson had been at first very reluctant to talk about his issues. Like a lot of lead-poisoning victims, he feels embarrassed about the indignities this nearly invisible neurotoxin can cause. It was when I told him that a bill was in the works and that his story might help others that he decided to talk about his struggles with lead poisoning.

I felt proud of Richardson as Kalra read his letter in an Assembly Labor Committee hearing, including the part that said “people shouldn’t be treated like they are disposable. That’s not what America or California is supposed to be about.” I hope Governor Brown gets a chance to read his letter, too.

Read Joe Rubin's fellowship stories here.

(Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)


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