Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov State epidemiologists should investigate whether the illnesses of residents at one of Los Angeles’ largest public-housing projects can be linked to soil contaminated by an oil refinery that once operated on the site, a state health official said this week.

William Mead Homes, a project in Lincoln Heights where 1,400 families live, was the site of an oil refinery for years before the housing project opened in 1943. Several residents fear two dozen cancer cases can be blamed on the tainted soil.

“Clearly what needs to occur is a health study,” said Ron Baker, a spokesman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control. “The epidemiological team can come down, conduct the necessary interviews, look at the contaminants that are out at the site, and then make some form of assessment as to whether or not the illnesses are related to the contaminants.”

The problems facing William Mead were the subject of a Weekly story (“Home, Sweet Dump”) last Thursday that revealed the contamination had not been cleaned up even though it was discovered in 1994. In March, the Housing Authority plans to relocate 85 families while workers remove up to 9,500 tons of tainted soil as part of a $1.1 million cleanup. The families will stay up to five months in hotels.

Housing Authority officials had little comment other than to say they would welcome a health study. Executive Director Donald Smith has, in the past, urged residents to be evaluated at the housing project’s health clinic. Smith said he sympathizes with residents who believe their illnesses are linked to the contamination, but said there is no proof.

Toxicologists discovered in 1994 that the project had been built on top of an oil refinery that dates back to the early 1900s. The soil is contaminated with cancer-causing refinery byproducts known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, or PAHs. Tests found the average levels of the compound at 19 parts per million; the state considers a safe level to be 1 part per million.

Baker said residents may have been exposed by eating homegrown foods, playing in contaminated soil and breathing soil particles. For years a large number of residents have been stricken by cancer, said Lucy Esquivel, a William Mead community worker who believes that her terminal cancer is linked to the contamination. She feels that the residents should be screened.

During a public meeting held at William Mead in October, state toxicologist Kimi Klein told residents that if 100,000 people were exposed to the levels of PAHs found at William Mead, about a thousand could get cancer if they ate homegrown foods.

Both current and former William Mead residents would welcome tests by a state team of epidemiologists, said Sam Villanueva, a former resident who grew up in one of the six contaminated buildings. Villanueva, 29, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1994.

Many of his friends and relatives who live or lived at William Mead have suffered from cancer, said Villanueva, who now lives in Eagle Rock. A close friend died of cancer at 17. Eating homegrown foods at William Mead was common for his family, Villanueva said. He fears that his illness is linked to the playground he used to play in during his boyhood days. “People [at William Mead] should be tested,” Villanueva said. “All of these people have died because of cancer.”

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