EDITORIAL: New research findings show that children are exposed to lead in the womb


My team compared the levels of lead in teeth to lead levels in the soil. We discovered a significant trend. The more lead in the soil in residential neighborhoods, the higher the levels in the teeth – both prenatally and during the first year of life.
We continue to collaborate with the community to work toward prevention of lead exposure and cleanup of the contaminated soil.

Jill Johnston

The following editorial by the Truth Fairy Project’s lead researcher appears in The Conversation in full.

The environmental tragedy in Flint, Michigan, in which drinking water contaminated with lead raised fears of potential health effects for exposed children, revealed the failure of a regulatory system to protect residents from lead exposure.

Until 2015 the Exide Technologies lead-acid battery smelter, in southeast Los Angeles County, California, recycled approximately 11 million lead acid batteries per year while operating on temporary state permits. This violated multiple federal environmental regulations and exposed over 100,000 residents to lead and other toxic metals. The result was large-scale environmental disaster with lead contamination of the air and soil in largely Latino communities.

As an environmental scientist and epidemiologist, I sought to understand lead pollution in children growing up in this area. For my research I collaborated with local community organizations and relied on an archive of biological samples that families often save: baby teeth.

Read the full story on The Conversation’s website here.

The research study associated with this editorial can be found here.

A statement regarding this research project and the ongoing work to assure the communities around the lead smelter in Los Angeles are cleaned up can be found on the website of community partner: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Infographic: USC Environmental Health Centers summarizing the research study results from the Truth Fairy Project

NEW RESEARCH: Lead contamination found in baby teeth of children living near battery smelter

By LEIGH HOPPER, USC

Blood tests for lead only reflect recent exposure, but past exposures detected in teeth may be important indicator of harm

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Airborne lead from recycled car batteries at the Exide plant in Vernon ended up in the baby teeth of children living nearby, a USC study shows.

“We found the higher the level of lead in the soil, the higher the amount of lead in baby teeth,” said first author Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “There’s no safe level of lead; it’s a potent neurotoxin. Our study provides insight into the legacy of the impact of industrial contamination on children.”

The Exide plant, located just southeast of downtown Los Angeles, recycled 11 million auto batteries per year and released 3,500 tons of lead until it closed in March 2015 as part of a legal settlement for hazardous waste violations.

As many as 250,000 residents, mostly working-class Latinos, face a chronic health hazard from exposure to airborne lead and arsenic that subsequently settles into the soil, according to a 2013 health risk assessment by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

For USC’s “Truth Fairy” study, published in the XX edition of Environmental Science & Technology, researchers collected 50 baby teeth from 43 children in five communities: Boyle Heights, Maywood, East L.A., Commerce and Huntington Park. They recruited families through churches, schools and door-to-door visits. A local organization, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, coined the name, “Truth Fairy.”

Using laser ablation and an analytical technique for molecular-level information, the researchers were able to look at the teeth layer by layer and assign time points for lead contamination, such as the second trimester of pregnancy, when teeth are starting to form in the mother’s womb.

During second trimester, teeth start to form in the mother’s womb. During the third trimester the baby is growing rapidly and incorporates nutrients and toxins to which the mother is exposed. After a child is born, they can be exposed to toxic metals in their environment. Infants are at higher risk because they crawl and put their hands and toys in their mouths.  Infographic: USC Environmental Health Centers
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