As a veteran teacher of 25 years, I‘ve heard children say a lot of things. But in 2010, one of my second-grade students said something no teacher should ever hear: “Ms. Lappin, I don’t want to die.” He wasn’t sick. But he was scared. The child’s haunting words impelled me to start asking questions. Specifically, why were so many children, teachers and residents developing cancer in the small city of Paramount?
I began calling regulatory agencies and contacting environmental and public health organizations. Three years later, one of my students lost her brave battle with the disease at the age of 8. At her funeral, a parent whose baby was diagnosed with cancer at 9 months old asked me, “Help us, teacher.” At that moment, I knew there was no turning back in my fight to uncover why so many parents’ hearts are being broken by the unexplainable number of children getting seriously ill and even dying.
As my activism increased, so did the evidence suggesting something was d-eeply wrong with the air we were all breathing. In 2014, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) held a town hall meeting to inform us that they had detected elevated levels of airborne toxic chemicals. I met a local teacher who had had five children diagnosed with cancer in her kindergarten class over the past eight years. And then, to my dismay, but not surprise, I learned that I had developed the disease, too — requiring the removal of my left lung three years ago.
In the summer of 2016, the SCAQMD agreed to conduct a comprehensive air-monitoring study of Paramount. Our deepest fears were realized: At a packed and tense town hall filled with outraged and concerned parents, teachers and residents, the agency informed us that our air had up to 350 times above normal levels of hexavalent chromium (hex chrome), a compound known to cause lung cancer, as well as asthma, allergies, anemia and sperm damage. Hex chrome is the same chemical that devastated the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley and was made famous in the film Erin Brockovich.
Metal forging, chrome plating and anodizing industries are primary emitters of this dangerous chemical. Southern California is home to hundreds of such metalworking companies, and the highest percentage of industrial hex chrome emissions in the state.
As a result of the growing public outcry of Paramount residents — ignited by revelations that our air was dangerously toxic and disclosure that there were five metal-forging companies within just 5 square miles — SCAQMD initiated a series of important actions. The agency identified the metalworking companies principally responsible for these dangerous emissions; required they reduce emissions or face temporary closure; forced metal-forging companies located near homes and schools to install state-of-the-art pollution controls; and prohibited metal grinding in the open air.
Since that time, SCAQMD has been holding public workshops to strengthen regulations aimed at reducing hex chrome emissions (Rule 1469) coming from the 117 chrome plating and chromic acid anodizing facilities in the state, most of which are located in low-income communities of Southern California. But the metal lobby and its big-business allies are fighting back.
Industry lobbyists launched coordinated personal attacks, downplayed the public health threat posed by hex chrome, and portrayed themselves as unfairly persecuted “mom-and-pop” businesses, despite many typically earning between $5 million and $50 million in annual revenues. SCAQMD has since conceded to industry demands, significantly weakening recently proposed regulatory changes that would improve air quality and protect public health.
Southern Californians are paying a steep price for this regulatory about-face. Alarming rates of cancer continue to plague our communities. Most vulnerable to the ravages of hex chrome are children, whose immune systems are still developing.
However, this fight isn’t over. No final regulatory decisions will be made until April 6. We have until Feb. 22 to submit public comments to SCAQMD. You can make your voice heard by signing this petition demanding the implementation of comprehensive, state-of-the-art pollution controls and immediate long-term air monitoring on all chrome plating and anodizing plants. And the companies emitting the chemical, not the taxpayers forced to breathe it, should pay for it.
Every person deserves to breathe clean air, especially children. For too long residents living in the shadows of the metal industry have been disproportionately impacted by the health hazards associated with breathing hex chrome. We must stop sacrificing low-income communities at the altar of corporate profit. The regulatory agencies given the responsibility to protect us must live up to the high environmental standards that California claims to uphold — our health and futures depend on it.
The Public Hearing date for Proposed Amended Rule 1469 has been moved to April 6, in order to provide SCAQMD staff time to evaluate concerns recently received from the public regarding the toxicity of chemical fume suppressants and work with stakeholders. Due to the delay, the comment deadline has been extended to Feb. 22. Sign the petition here.
Lisa Lappin is a second- and third-grade teacher who has been teaching in Compton and Paramount for a combined 26 years.