“San Marino is a very, very low risk area as far as lead exposure is concerned,” said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, Director of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, summarizing a two-hour emergency meeting of the San Marino City Council on Wednesday morning.
Rangan and Maurice Pantoja, Environmental Health Services Manager of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, were asked to address a maelstrom that formed locally last week when Reuters News Agency published an article claiming that two census tracts in San Marino had reported high levels of lead in young children under the age of six.
Rangan referenced the 2015 data set from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health that was based on data collected by the county between 2011 and 2015. That data was used by Joshua Schneyer, an investigative reporter with Reuters, in the article that compared the supposedly elevated numbers in San Marino to those collected in Flint, Michigan during a recent water crisis.
The data set, and the Reuters story, claimed that 17 percent of the children in the western census tract of San Marino had tested above the Centers for Disease Control reference level of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter. Rangan, who is also a practicing pediatrician, explained that the reference level of 5 has actually decreased from a previous level of 25 and has gradually been reduced to 5. Rangan also said that the county’s reporting method can also cause public alarm. He explained that any measurement above zero is listed as a “5 or below,” even if the actual number is just 2 or 1 and that the 17 percent figure included all of the 5 or below readings.
The Office of Communication & Public Affairs of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health confirmed this in an April 26 statement to The Tribune.
“Further analysis of the data showed that 26 of these children had reported levels of 5 ug/dL and that these results were coming from the same laboratory. The detection limit for that lab was 5 ug/dL and children with blood levels below this detection limit were being reported as a level 5 ug/dL. Therefore, some or most of these children may have had levels less than 4.5, and would not necessarily represent elevated levels in a final analysis,” the statement read.
Rangan also revealed that only two readings of the 163 tests between 2011 and 2015 measured above 6: a 6.0 in 2011 and a 6.8 in 2013.
Even those, he said, are not enough to cause alarm.
“That doesn’t mean that if you have a level of 6 that you are in danger,” he said. “It just means that you are at a level where there might be intervention.”
Rangan explained that a reading of 0-5 would warrant no intervention. A reading between 5-10, he said, would warrant repeating the screening in the “next few weeks or even several months” and that a reading above 10 might incur a visit from a nurse, who would check other residents for symptoms and perform a walkthrough of the home.
“A reading above 20 would require medical intervention,” Rangan said.
Council Member Steve Talt, who pushed for the emergency meeting, asked the majority of the questions.
Pantoja reiterated that the reporting method can cause confusion.
“We used to report a reading of ‘less than 5’ as ‘less than 5,’” he said. “Looking at the number in San Marino, many of those children who were reported might be less than 5. All we know is they are ‘less than 5’ and the number that gets reported is 5. They are not all 5 or above. That number is greatly overestimated. They are probably less than 5, but reported at 5.”
Talt asked Rangan what the leading causes of lead in the environment are and the doctor was ready with his answer.
“When we list the top ten causes of lead in the environment, the top 8 are lead paint,” he said. “After that, it might be lead in the dirt outside the home or pottery. But lead paint is the number one reason, overarching across the country. There are a lot of old homes in San Marino and even if you paint over lead paint, it’s still there. Opening and closing windows creates a lead dust. Renovations and demolitions. Housing is generally the number one source of lead.”
Lead paint has been banned in California since 1978.
Other sources are medicines, food, occupational exposure to lead and those who use the element in hobbies, including firearms and gun clubs.
Because of Flint, many in San Marino immediately jumped to the city’s water source as a possible cause, but Rangan disagreed. In fact, it took 28 minutes before the word “water” was even mentioned.
“We have some of the best municipal water quality in the country,” said Rangan, who did allow for possible contamination from old pipes or the outdated use of solder in welding copper pipe.
“These numbers should not be used to determine that San Marino has a lead problem,” Rangan said in conclusion.
But he did allow that “All the sources are out there in San Marino.”
“The old homes, the hobbies,” Rangan said. “Go to your doctor when your kids are 1 and 2 and insist on a screening even if there are no risk factors. You are doing that child a great service.”
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