Living in Industry’s Shadow: After Years of Illness, Family Seeks Answers (Part I)

Living in Industry’s Shadow: After Years of Illness, Family Seeks Answers (Part I)

Story tools

A A AResize



EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of an investigative report by California Watch, that chronicles the struggle of one Latino family from Maywood, Calif. - a small city in southeast Los Angeles County that sits in a sea of heavy industry – as they attempt to pinpoint the cause of their chronic sickness.

The Martin family lives 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, in a neat yellow house in a city called Maywood.

Starting a few blocks from their home, nearly 2,000 factories churn out Southern California’s hot dogs, pesticides, patio furniture and other products. Trucks rumble off the I-710 freeway into sprawling freight rail yards. Odors of rotting animal carcasses waft through the family’s windows on hot summer nights.

The Martins also have endured years of illness.

From the time Anaiz Martin was born until she was a toddler, her father would carry her in his arms, his big mustache tickling her baby cheeks. This simple embrace carried a haunting consequence. By age 3, Anaiz weighed just 19 pounds and could barely raise her head. Her parents said they were told by doctors that Salvador Martin’s mustache probably held sickening levels of lead from his plating factory job.

The heavy metal attacked her neurological system, permanently robbing her of critical learning skills.

Two decades later, her family's woes continue. Anaiz, now 21, her mother and siblings – Adilene, 22, and Sal Jr., 18 – have suffered irritable bowel syndrome, an ovarian cyst, skin rashes, chronic nausea, diarrhea, asthma and depression.

Their mother, Josefina, frets constantly about what she thinks are likely causes: the air they breathe, the ground beneath their home and, most of all, the gunky black, brown or yellow water that has intermittently run from their faucets for years.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t take it anymore,’ ” Josefina, 45, said during an interview in the summer of 2010. “I try to keep myself up and going, but I am really upset all the time. I just want to know what’s going on with my family and all of this contamination.”

The USC Annenberg Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and California Watch commissioned tests to measure the family’s exposure levels to dangerous metals and industrial byproducts.

Americans have been randomly sampled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 30 years for chemicals linked to cancer, developmental disabilities and other problems, in a process known as biomonitoring. But some experts say one group has not been adequately sampled: people living in the shadow of industry.

The Martin family is among millions of Americans in similar circumstances – forced by their meager wages to live near industrial areas, including aging smokestacks, landfills, locomotives and other potential hazards. Yet because government officials make little attempt to dig deep into toxic exposure in ordinary people, it is impossible to know if they are unique or part of a much larger potential problem in hundreds of neighborhoods across the nation.

An ‘isle in a sea of industry’

The Martins’ home and their small city sit eight miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, at the crossroads of an American manufacturing and freight-hauling juggernaut. About 1 square mile, Maywood is the state’s most densely populated community. Nearly 50,000 residents – 98 percent Latino – are squeezed into aging apartment blocks and cozy tract houses between a smorgasbord of pollutants.

It wasn’t always so. Named after a land agent’s secretary, Maywood was marketed in the early 1900s as pleasant farmland with deep artesian wells near a Los Angeles River bend. Around the same time, Los Angeles civic leaders took note of prevailing winds and zoned for odiferous slaughterhouses and other businesses southeast of downtown. Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa, Firestone and others built area factories. By the 1950s, Maywood was “a residential isle in a sea of industry,” according to a retired city clerk.

Today, the Martins roll up their car windows and cover their noses when they drive past fish processing facilities and open-air rendering plants where euthanized shelter dogs, slaughterhouse remnants and fast food grease are burned and recycled in makeup, pet food and other products. They live less than a mile downwind of one of the West's largest battery smelters, cited multiple times in the past decade for emitting illegal levels of lead; half a mile from a Superfund site; and close to one of the nation’s busiest truck routes.

Public records show tons of air pollutants released annually, years of contaminated water readings, and troubling soil contamination near some shuttered and current manufacturers in Vernon, Maywood and the immediate vicinity.

Water quality is a concern, too. Manganese levels in Maywood water were among the highest in the region, according to a 2010 consultant’s report required of the three local water companies. Records show the well two blocks from the Martins’ home has routinely exceeded legal limits for the substance.

Manganese is a purplish-brown metal that is a necessary nutrient in small amounts. But chronic high exposure has been linked to severe neurological disorders. State health officials have not disclosed those risks to anxious residents, instead stating repeatedly in writing and at community forums that while manganese may stain laundry and isn’t pleasant to look at, there is no health risk.

Despite the area’s noxious brew, the Martins have called southeast Los Angeles home for two decades.
It is where Salvador Sr. and Josefina were able to afford property. Their Catholic church, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, has helped Josefina keep faith through family illness and worry. Her mother, brother and other relatives live nearby on another tidy residential street. But her father died two years ago, and with her children sick and discolored water in the sinks and shower, Josefina is not sure how much longer she can stay.

One thing that would help is to know what’s inside her family.

Josefina and her children agree to be tested for more than two dozen heavy metals and dioxins.

They volunteer unflinchingly to fast for 24 hours, to have a substantial amount of blood and urine drawn and sent to Brooks Rand Labs in Seattle and other certified labs in British Columbia and Sacramento for analysis, and to share the results. Experts say the outcome could offer a snapshot of possible contamination because the family has lived in the same home for 19 years. Long-term exposure to environmental conditions increases risk dramatically.

“I talked to my kids. I said this is good for us to do because we’re going to help other people to find out what’s going on, too,” Josefina said. “We want to know if it’s the water getting us sick, the air pollution or something else.”

The Martins undergo testing

On a July morning in 2010, the day samples are to be taken, Salvador Martin Sr. tends his front garden, the nicest on the block. He keeps an eye on his children’s comings and goings and prunes his citrus trees.

Sal, 49, lost his longtime supervisory job at a factory that shut down in 2009. Luckily, he invested years ago in property with rental units. Although he is most at risk after decades of potential workplace exposure to contaminants, he declines to be tested.

“I don’t want to know,” he says.

He prefers to be proactive. He and other neighbors are fighting to penetrate the byzantine bureaucracy of Maywood Mutual Water Co. No. 2, which serves their neighborhood, to get the water cleaned up. Between making rounds to factories seeking work and driving his daughter Adilene to community college, he attends organizing meetings.

He stands at the edge of the driveway as his family drives away to be tested.

Adilene, owner of Lulu, a Maltese toy dog, has had the same boyfriend for about five years. She loves to run into shops or stop by street vendors and buy a little something. She had wanted to be a makeup artist. But now she attends nursing assistant classes at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, a walk and two bus rides across south LA when her dad can’t drive her. Her teacher pulled her aside after the first test and told her she had aced it.

Adilene is the oldest of the three children and is ready to be tested. She’s sick of the itchy rashes she gets on her arms sometimes after showering, and of the discolored water that runs out of the faucets, which she photographs indignantly with her cell phone.

She watches with interest as a phlebotomist straps a blue band tightly around her forearm and draws 10 vials of blood. She plans to do the same someday as a registered nurse.

Junior has been driving his mother crazy. He stays out late, has trouble in school, sleeps late and rises groggily to go to church. “I’m his mother, I speak for him, and he’s going,” she scolds one Sunday, handing his jeans to him.

Junior, as the family calls him, has had asthma since he was a baby and was diagnosed with an inflamed liver a year ago, according to emergency room papers. Follow-up testing showed it had returned to normal, but no one could explain what had happened.

Junior is polite around company and secretly adores his mother. He also is frustrated and frightened by where they live. As a pudgy seventh-grader, he was severely beaten by a gang of older teens with brass-knuckled fists. His mother got him into another school, where he was picked on again and began fighting back. This spring, she got him into a Utah residential school, away from bullies and bad boys. A few days after arriving, he called and begged her to come get him. It was worse than Maywood, he said.

He has slimmed down, lifts weights and eats healthily. He’s in summer session at an area high school, but declines a field trip to nearby mountains. He doesn’t want trouble on the bus, he says curtly.

“Maybe I didn’t spend enough time with him because I spent so much time on Anaiz,” his mother mourns.

He lies on the lab table, nonchalantly scanning text messages as the needle pricks his arm.

Effects of childhood lead poisoning linger

Anaiz, like her older sister, is always perfectly coiffed and dressed, with eye shadow, lipstick and mascara applied to her heart-shaped face. She’s had a boyfriend for the past three years. She’s shy, but always listening, head on her mother’s shoulder or a step behind her older sister as they head out in the evening.

She sleeps a lot during the day and is often depressed. Her parents discovered from medical check-ups that she had lead poisoning when she was 18 months old. She’s had asthma since she was a toddler and now has irritable bowel syndrome.

Her life’s work has been school. She remembers being forced to repeat kindergarten and how kids teased her at her first elementary school, and second, and third. She remembers the fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Correa, who worked patiently with her and let her go to “regular” class when she wanted, or stay in special education when she didn’t. He cried when she got her sixth-grade diploma. For seventh through ninth grade, she went to a school for kids with Down syndrome and severe learning disabilities. She loved the team sports, but with nowhere near their level of problems, she felt out of place.

“I felt I could do more,” she says.

At 15, she developed abdominal pains. Doctors found an ovarian cyst. After surgery, the pains continued. She shuttled between the emergency room and school several times a week. She continued to struggle with schoolwork and knew something was terribly wrong. At 16, she broke down sobbing, begging her mother to tell her why. Josefina had intended to wait until Anaiz was 18, but she relented. It might have been the neighbor near our old house spraying cars. It might have been you eating some dirt as a little girl. It probably was from your father.

“She was so sad,” Josefina recalls. “She kept saying, ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’”

Anaiz wanted out of the special high school, back to a regular Maywood high school. School administrators agreed because she “looked” normal, which angers her mother. She participated in graduation but didn’t receive a diploma. She began adult education, but the stomach pains continued.

“I would go to the restroom, and I would bleed from the stress,” she says softly. Finally, a doctor told her it was not worth losing her life to go to school, and she gave up.

She lies down patiently to have her blood drawn. She’s been doing this her entire life.

Josefina is the worrier and the warrior along with her husband. She came to the United States at 12, noting firmly that her parents came legally, with green cards. She was working by 18 at a metal pin factory on Slauson Avenue, Maywood’s truck-clogged spine. She had always been healthy, but the smell of glue and paint fumes made her dizzy. She kept her head down, sorting freshly glued buttons. Within months, she was gasping. She’d developed a lung infection and asthma. She met Sal; they married, went to civics classes and became citizens. They began a family in Lynwood, another southeast Los Angeles community near his job.

“Those were the hard years,” Josefina says.

Anaiz’s lead levels were high, with no apparent cause. Finally, a doctor asked if her husband had a mustache. Another child had been poisoned by her father’s facial hair. Sal refused to shave his trademark mustache, but began changing and showering when he arrived home from work, before saying hello. Her lead levels came down for good when he left the job.

Josefina wants to be tested because of what happened to her daughter. Because a few weeks ago, the water in the shower stung her, and when she opened her eyes, it was streaming brown onto her skin.

“Because I want to know,” she says.

She lies down and tugs her dress demurely over her knees. Her blood is darker than her children’s and comes out slowly. She reminds herself that her father did chemotherapy without flinching.

Part two of this report will appear tomorrow on New America Media.

Janet Wilson can be reached at This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick. This story was produced for the USC Annenberg Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and for California Watch at the Center for Investigative Reporting.