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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 15th April 2016 > FLINT, CALIFORNIA


A battery recycling plant in L.A. spewed poison into the atmosphere for decades. Now poor Latinos are paying the price

THERE IS THE LITTLE girl who had a tumor on her kidney and the boy who had cancer of the brain. People get cancer everywhere, but in southeast Los Angeles County, the latest battleground over lead contamination in the United States, people talk about cancer as if it were a tornado: this house, two houses after that, my mother, my husband, my cousin. Sometimes, all of the above.

Children here are born early, already ailing. Amelia Vallejo has six, all born premature. All six have breathing troubles, as do many children in her neighborhood, most of them from working-class Latino families. Vallejo’s first five babies got off relatively easy. Her youngest, Michael, was born with severe developmental delays. He has difficulty hearing and seeing. “My son’s in diapers. He is 5,” Vallejo says with tragic matter-of-factness. We are sitting in her neat living room on South Herbert Avenue. Bright plastic toys stand stacked against the walls. Some of these should be outside in the yard, Vallejo explains apologetically, but her kids don’t play there anymore, not with lead soil readings of more than 1,400 parts per million.

“They didn’t care,” Vallejo says. “They were making money.” They are Exide Technologies, one of the world’s largest producers and recyclers of lead-acid car batteries. Until last year, it operated a recycling plant in nearby Vernon, the famously corrupt and polluted municipality that was the setting for the second season of HBO’s True Detective. Though state regulators repeatedly warned Exide that it was releasing dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere—not only lead but also arsenic, benzene and 1,3- butadiene—the warnings were never especially stern, and so Exide never heeded them until, finally, the Department of Justice shut down the plant last spring. (Exide did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

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