East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice info@eycej.org 323.263.2113

The Truth Fairy Project and the Exide Fights to Come

Over the last 24 hours we have been getting a steady flow of calls, emails, texts and DMs from media outlets wanting to get a soundbite to put out regarding USC’s children tooth lead study. Responsible journalists inform themselves before reaching out. Others keep us on the line for close to an hour wanting a crash course on Exide, only to lightly touch on what has gone down, sometimes not mentioning where our current struggles are, and using our words without attributing quotes. With all of this, what has become clear is that there is a general lack of understanding of the issues we face with Exide and soundbites won’t provide the clarity needed. Here we will discuss the Truth Fairy Project, it’s implications for our communities, and where the efforts of our movement are focused.
For generations our communities struggled to get Exide shut down, and we succeeded. We struggled to get soil sampling in our communities, and we succeeded. We struggled to get our homes cleaned up, and we succeeded. At least that’s what the many press conferences, reports, videos, etc. over the years would lead us all to believe. The reality is all of these struggles, where of course we have had victories, are complicated and ongoing. We are far from achieving justice in our communities, and so our struggle continues.
As the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) went on to take credit for the Federal Government shutting down Exide, and as some politicians applauded themselves for securing cleanup funds they never fought for (and even discouraged us from seeking), we moved to lifting up new priorities on top of this. Sustained cleanup funding, which we won through Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia’s battery fee bill. Workforce development and local hire for cleanup work, which DTSC piloted and successfully developed. Understanding and addressing the social and health impacts of Exide’s poison, which is the hardest of the tasks and accordingly where we found the least support. We began to move the conversation through our Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative, with our members conducting research on Exide lead exposure and the social and health impacts in our communities. Also, Dr. Jill Johnston of USC’s Keck School of Medicine responded to our call.
Dr. Johnston came to us with the idea of collecting children’s teeth and studying them for lead exposure. She explained that teeth have rings, similar to trees, and there is a partner lab where they can shave the teeth ring by ring and study the level of exposure, as well as the point in life when exposure took place. As a community based movement we do not have the resources or expertise to engage in a project like this on our own, and this highlights the importance of our partnership with USC’s Keck School of Medicine. As an academic institution, they often haven’t built trust and credibility in the broader community, and sometimes don’t have the skillsets to engage our communities the same as community movements or organizations do, and this highlights the importance of their partnership with us.
One of our first contributions to this effort was generating the name “Truth Fairy.” Lets be honest, asking people to give us their kid’s teeth that have fallen out is weird. Starting from a concept that many are familiar and comfortable with, the Tooth Fairy, we flipped the name and connected it to our other community driven data collecting efforts, including Groundtruhting (which includes creating data sets through DIY land use documenting, which was at the foundation of our Green Zones work) and Trucktruthing (where we conducted truck counts, particulate matter sampling, documented truck idling, and got No Truck Idling signs put up). Instead of slipping some cash under your pillow, we made a commitment to come back with information that will contribute to the healing of our communities through our fight for resources to address the social and health impacts of Exide.
Below are the findings of this project:
To view report click here.
We weren’t surprised that the lab found lead in children’s teeth. We anticipated that one of the major findings would be that levels of lead exposure would rise if they lived at properties that had higher levels of lead in the soil. None of this softened the blow of having this confirmed. What was extremely disturbing, and something we didn’t anticipate, was the spike in lead exposure in the third trimester.
Through our struggles we have learned that our bodies can mistake lead for calcium and deposit it in our bodies where normally calcium would go. This is why we find lead in teeth. The revelation that lead exposure spiked in the third trimester reminded us of the saying we often hear from our grandmothers, “mis hijos me robaron el calcio” (my children stole my calcium). In the third trimester, the exchange of blood and minerals between the fetus and the birthing parent is at it’s highest, so lead exposure that the birthing parent has experienced is passed down to the fetus. Typically we associate lead exposure in children with crawling and walking as they start to move around, touch surfaces and put their hands in their mouth, but in this case we have found that we are being exposed to lead before birth. Even when the Exide site is completely cleaned up, even when every home is completely cleaned up, Exide lead exposure will continue to be a legacy issue in our communities. Luckily our movements, and our fight against Exide in particular, has been and will continue to be inter/multigenerational!
First off, we need to do more research and generate more data. The Truth Fairy Project has included a relatively small sample size. 43 participants in an area that has over 100,000 residents. Here, funding has been an issue, so we call on government agencies and philanthropy to step up so we continue to expose the deeper impacts of Exide. Additionally we need government agencies and philanthropy to step up in Exide impacted communities to support with those of us who are more vulnerable now because of lead exposure. We need to address the impacts on brain development in children, which often manifests in challenges with academic achievement. We look to early education and additional resources in the classroom for K-12. We need to address the impacts on impulse control, which often manifests in violence in lead impacted communities. We look to youth employment opportunities, workforce development, local hire policies, reentry programs for our family/community members coming out of the system and returning to our communities. We understand these issues are intertwined and lead our youth in the school to prison pipeline. We also ask for others who have more experience and expertise in disrupting these issue areas to help inform us on what needs and solutions we should focus on addressing.
As contractors move on cleaning up thousands of residential properties, we fear recontamination of properties that have been cleaned up, exposure inside the home during and after cleanup, incomplete cleanup, and any practice that compromises the health of our communities and waterways. We have begun training our members to be Residential Cleanup Observers so we can watch our blocks, document, and hold contractors and the state accountable.
We still don’t trust DTSC! Change in leadership at an institution like DTSC does not automatically mean a change in the organizational culture within the institution. Whether through malfeasance, incompetence, lack of capacity, or otherwise, DTSC has failed us time and time again and we have not seen a momentum change on the Exide issues. We still need a local cleanup agency that is transparent and accountable to our communities on the ground, not an institution that is looking to do the least possible, if anything at all, and move on. We will better address Exide issues with a local cleanup agency, and DTSC will be better off not having to handle Exide issues. Former Governor Jerry Brown resisted change at the institution. We look to Governor Gavin Newsom, who is not at fault with what has happened but is responsible for how this is handled moving forward, to communicate with our communities and work with us in ways Jerry Brown refused to.
When the California Department of Public Health released blood lead data for children that live within a 4.5 mile radius of Exide, it showed our children face higher rates of exposure compared to the rest of Los Angeles County. 99% of the homes that have been tested within the 1.7 mile radius require cleanup, meaning the edge of the contamination has not been found. These two facts point to the logical conclusion that the state must continue sampling beyond 1.7 miles to adequately profile the contamination. In fact, through our Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative, our members conducted soil sampling at homes beyond the 1.7 mile radius and found elevated levels of lead in Unincorporated East Los Angeles and the City of Bell. The state has often used the lack of resources, and wanting to prioritize cleaning up the homes with the highest levels of lead before anything else. This makes sense to a certain extent, but when there is money in the bank that hasn’t moved since Jerry Brown was last in office, this begins to feel disingenuous. Sampling and cleanup efforts can and should be happening at the same time.
There are currently two bills moving through the legislature concerning Exide cleanup funds. One is a one time $100 million allocation (AB 1462). The other is an increase to the existing battery fee that will bring in tens of millions of dollars more annually without a sunset (AB 142). We hope both pass and are signed. We hope the bills are not put in to competition with each other, but unfortunately we are familiar with the opportunism that thrives with the toxic political games in Sacramento. Before leaving office, Jerry Brown took back millions of battery fee dollars as a “repayment” for the money the state “loaned” itself for Exide cleanup. The legislature allowed it. This is disgusting, as the state should be pursuing Exide for repayment, not looting the battery fee, especially when we are nowhere close to even seeing the horizon of the cleanup needed in our communities. It’s even more disgusting as Jerry Brown left office with a budget surplus, showing that looting that battery fee was not necessary in any way, shape or form.
When Exide was still operating and we were knocking on doors to support community members in requesting their homes be sampled and cleaned, sometimes we would hear residents ask “Why should we get our homes cleaned up if Exide is just going to keep poisoning us with lead?” Our response was “We are fighting to shut down Exide to make sure that doesn’t happen!” We succeeded. Unfortunately, the contamination has blanketed our communities, meaning homes that have been cleaned up may have already been recontaminated from lead in the parkways (the grass area between the sidewalk and the street), roofs that the state has refused to clean, road dust, homes that were not cleaned responsibly and fugitive dust has been visible, and development/construction projects like the industrial freezer at Indiana and Union Pacific where large plumes of fugitive dust were seen flying over the first homes cleaned up in the Union Pacific neighborhood of East LA/Boyle Heights. As we push to expand the soil sampling area, we must double back and make sure we aren’t replicating a cleanup process that hasn’t worked. Other communities that have had to fight for lead cleanups like this have found themselves in the situation where homes need to be cleaned up multiple times.

When Exide was shut down in Vernon, the contents of the facility were immediately shipped to the Exide facility in Muncie, Indiana. We attempted to reach out to people out there at that time and didn’t get a response. More recently we were connected to community members on the ground that are starting to build a movement because they too have been poisoned by Exide. They have asked us to tell them our stories and share our strategies, and so we have shared and offered to head out there to visit, conduct an exchange, and support their movement building on the ground. We are in solidarity with the communities in Muncie, Indiana resisting Exide!
If you are from the Exide impacted communities, join us! If you aren’t from our communities but want to support, follow our lead. Email info@eycej.org, call 323.263.2113, DM us on social media Facebook.com/EYCEJ Twitter/IG: @EYCEJ, #NoMoPlomo #WeAreJustTryingToBreathe