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Her Last Worry

Photo Slobodan Dimitrov
Lucy Esquivel lived for the projects. She found meaning by helping her neighbors and staying active in her community. She also believed that the ground beneath her beloved neighborhood had caused her cancer.

The 42-year-old mother of five, who grew up in Lincoln Heights’ William Mead Homes, died last Friday after a two-year fight with ovarian cancer. Last Saturday, hundreds of residents attended a vigil at the project’s community center. Later, they held candles and walked through rain-soaked streets in a procession to honor Esquivel, president of their Resident Advisory Council.

Like other residents, Esquivel believed as many as two dozen cancer cases could be linked to contamination caused by an oil refinery that operated on the site in the 1920s. A $1.1 million cleanup, involving the temporary relocation of 85 families, is expected to begin in March.

A story in the Weekly last month revealed that cancer-causing chemicals, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), were found in 1994 in the southern part of the projects, according to state toxicologists. Soil tests showed PAH levels as high as 39.7 parts per million, said Michel Iskarous, the scientist who oversaw the testing. The state considers safe levels for PAHs to be .9 parts per million.

The contaminated soil lies in the back yards of six residential buildings, and in a fenced-off playground where children played for decades, Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) officials said. Residents have begun calling the playground “cancer park,” said Victor Borrayo, a resident who was a friend of Esquivel.

Residents are not happy with the scant official concern their health worries have drawn. Three weeks ago, Ron Baker, the spokesman for the DTSC, said a health study should be done on residents, but no agency has yet taken the initiative to see that the work is done.

State and county officials trade responsibility for undertaking any such study. Lea Brooks, the spokeswoman for the State Department of Health Services, said that before the state will look into William Mead, the Los Angeles County Health Department must first make an assessment and ask the state for help. But county health officials want the state to provide the county with all of its reports on William Mead and clarify what specific health studies need to be done, said James Haughton, the county’s medical director for public-health programs and services.

“I hope that pretty soon DTSC will share with us whatever they have been hearing from the community,” Haughton said last week. “When they do, we will go out and meet with the community, and try to help them help us try to document what they know about, so that we can verify those cases.”

City housing director Don Smith said that he sympathizes with the residents who are sick. He encourages them to be screened at an on-site William Mead clinic.

William Mead’s new resident leader, Edgar Barrera, who succeeded Esquivel three weeks ago, said that the residents feel they have been all but forgotten. Most William Mead residents want to ask public-health officials for help, but they have very little experience in community organization, Barrera said. Some are fearful of retaliation by the Housing Authority.

“Most people here only speak Spanish, and don’t know how to voice their concerns,” Barrera said. “I wish someone in government would get involved in this. We are fighting against a giant.”

Baker said that William Mead residents might have been exposed to the contamination by eating homegrown foods, playing on the playground and breathing soil particles. For years, a large number of residents have been struck by cancer, said longtime resident Jovita Vargas.

Health experts say it is highly unlikely that ovarian cancer, which killed Esquivel, can be caused by exposure to carcinogenic contaminants.

A rosary was scheduled to be said for Esquivel Thursday, February 17, at Plaza Olvera’s Our Lady Queen of Angels, said Sam Villanueva, a friend of the family. Burial services were set for the following day at Monterey Park’s Resurrection Cemetery. A trust fund has been set up to help the Esquivels with the funeral services. Donors can make a deposit in an account set up for her at the Lincoln Heights branch of Bank of America.