How an L.A. Suburb Became One of the Most Toxic Towns

Personal Health

In July 2007, Gail Shephard quit her job as an orthopedic technician. Her weakened muscles had made it too difficult for her to wash her hair or even pull up her pants in the morning. Now, Shephard, 55, takes two pain medications and Mirapex, a pill to treat Parkinson's disease, each day.

"I don't do anything," Shephard said. "I sit in the same chair. I dread getting up in the morning, it's so painful. I can't walk and I hold onto the walls to go the bathroom and back. And that is my entire day."

But Shephard doesn't have Parkinson's disease and doctors don't quite know how to diagnose her. She knows, however, that her ailments began shortly after February 2006, when she transferred to the new Kaiser Permanente facility built on the site of a former NASA plant, which comprised 160 acres of land in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, Calif.

Shephard would come to find that she wasn't alone in her unexplained health problems. Several other former employees of the Kaiser Downey Medical Center and Downey Studios -- a film-production center also located at the site -- claim that they too became ill as a result of exposure to toxic contaminants left over from seven decades of military and aerospace research and manufacturing at the old NASA Downey Industrial Plant. The ailments have become so common that workers there coined a nickname: "Downey flu."

As for Shephard, the move to Downey aggravated her tendon and joint pain. Soon after, her feet and ankles ached: "My foot was so sensitive I couldn't put a blanket on it or let water touch it. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what."

That was only the beginning. Shephard had difficulty breathing, and experienced back spasms, dizzy spells and migraine headaches. Before long, she was urinating blood. Now, she has central nervous system damage and most of her body has turned numb.

Those who suffer from "Downey flu" claim that the city of Downey and Industrial Realty Group, which operate what's now called Downey Landing, failed to properly remediate the property or notify workers of mold, fungi and other toxic residue. The U.S. Department of Labor has identified 260 chemicals found at the NASA site, including arsenic, lead, uranium, plutonium, trichloroethylene and chromium.

For environmental health advocates, Downey illustrates the potential harm in redeveloping old industrial sites, and the loophole that allows for development to occur before hazardous substances are completely removed. Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as Superfund or CERCLA, former U.S. military and industrial sites can be purchased by developers who promise to clean up the land. But some sickened workers question the wisdom of allowing the privatization of remediation efforts, which removes the responsibility from the government and places it into the hands of developers eager to start capitalizing on their investment.

In the Superfund program's nearly 30-year history, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified tens of thousands of hazardous waste sites. Upon some of these now sit office buildings, shopping malls, houses and schools, often without the knowledge of the people who live and work there. One such place -- Downey Landing -- boasts the film studio, Kaiser facility, Columbia Memorial Space Science Learning Center, a shopping center and a public park.

"They never told us [Downey] was a Boeing-NASA site," said Shephard, from her home in Norwalk. "Or that it was a brownfield."

Downey Flu's Impact

For 18 years, Shephard worked at Kaiser Permanente, starting out as a surgical clinical assistant before training to become an orthopedic technician. She originally worked at the Kaiser in Bellflower, Calif., before a new facility was constructed in nearby Downey.

For 70 years, this particular property served as a base for American aircraft and aerospace industries. Military-industrial use began in 1929 and personnel built bombers there during World War II. Later, North American Aviation conducted nuclear power and rocket propulsion research. NASA took over the property in 1960, using the facility to assemble rockets and missiles, and most famously, to build space shuttles for the Apollo space program. In 1972, Apollo 16 embarked on NASA's fifth lunar landing. Four notable travelers boarded the flight: fungal species selected to determine what effect, if any, space exposure had on cell changes. Afterward, the fungi returned to Downey for post-flight analysis.

In 1996, Boeing Company acquired the plant and shut down the facility in 1999. The city of Downey and Stuart Lichter's Industrial Realty Group -- known for developing brownfields -- bought the property. A film production studio was built and a few years later, Kaiser constructed its medical complex.

Shephard's ailments began shortly after transferring to the facility. She eventually lost her muscle strength and her doctor deemed her 100-percent disabled, stating that her "severe limitations in mobility and cognitive function" resulted from "workplace exposure to mold and toxic chemicals."

Steve Basile, 53, worked as a prop maker at Downey Studios in September 2004 for the DreamWorks' film The Island. It was unusually rainy that fall, Basile recalled, and the roof leaked and the stage was damp. Workers used a bathroom in the far back of the building, which Basile described as reminiscent of a 1920s abandoned subway station with ponds of standing water and mold on the walls. He developed a sore throat and sniffles. Before long, he was coughing and hacking, and his muscles grew sore. But he couldn't take any time off.

"We would stay because there's no work and you have to pay your mortgage," he said.

Sometimes, Basile and his partner climbed up to the ceiling to hang hoists for elevators, where they'd find beams covered with a black powder-like substance that made them cough. Clouds of particles always filled the air. Basile remembers workers removing asbestos and other people in hazmat suits removing dirt. His skin itched and his eyes burned. Basile never wore gloves and developed spots on his hands. He said his skin used to peel like a lizard's. One day in December of 2004, Basile's back snapped. That was his last day working at Downey.

Several months later, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 44 warned union members that Downey was a toxic site. Lichter sued IATSE for harming his business and the union settled for $775,000. IATSE reversed its warnings and told workers the property was safe.

Daniel Ferguson worked as an actor at Downey Studios in June 2009 for the filming of Iron Man 2. He developed headaches, low energy, a dry cough and a sore throat that hasn't gone away. A month after his scene wrapped, he noticed rashes on his arms, which spread to his chest and back. Ferguson, 35, now suffers elbow, knee and lower back pain, and his illness has affected his ability to book acting jobs.

"For the past three years, I've been on sets for 15 hours a day and that's never affected me," Ferguson said. "Now, I can't pass the eight-hour mark. I never was like that before I walked on that set. I could have stayed on set for 24 hours if I had to."

Linda Sorensen, 55, worked for Rockwell International (which had merged with North American Aviation, and later Boeing) at Downey for 20 years. "I started getting back pain back in 1997 or 1998 and found out I have cancer of the spinal chord," she said. "I also used to get strange dizzy spells when I worked there and never could figure out why."

If indeed the site has sickened some Downey workers, these people are perhaps most upset because they believe their health shouldn't have been compromised in the first place, arguing that government officials could have prevented the development of the site.

A Los Angeles Time article last year reported that environmental surveys documented extensive contamination at Downey, including high concentrations of trichloroethylene found in the soil and groundwater. Exposure to this industrial solvent can cause nerve and organ damage, respiratory problems and impaired immunity. According to the article, these surveys found high levels of hexavalent chromium, which is used to plate metal and rust-proof aircraft engine parts, in the soil. Exposure to this chemical can cause damage to the nose, throat and lungs, and skin rashes.

Despite these risks, the city of Downey and IRG decided to redevelop the site in tandem with remediation efforts, which they were allowed to do thanks to an early-transfer amendment to CERCLA that fast-tracks redevelopment and allows the federal government to transfer property to a non-federal entity before completion of environmental clean-ups. Expediting title transfer paves the way for financing and loans for remediation and redevelopment, and generates new jobs and tax revenue. Gov. Gray Davis approved the transfer.

On September 7, 2000, the Department of Toxic Substances Control's office of military facilities faxed a letter to EPA Region 9 Administrator Philip Armstrong about the draft environmental assessment for the Downey NASA plant. It notes how a local water purveyor had detected low-level concentrations of organic solvents, including tetrachloroethene, which can affect the central nervous system, kidney, liver and reproductive system. Symptoms manifest themselves as dizziness, headaches and poor balance. The letter states: "It is also our understanding that no risk assessments for human and ecological health have yet been performed for this property."

The letter continues: "Additionally, it is DTSC's understanding that NASA has proposed that future land use restrictions be placed in the deed to prohibit use ... [that] may expose persons or the environment to residual contaminants." The department recommended that a land-use covenant be entered into that would bind future owners. The letter was sent during negotiations for early transfer (PDF) of the NASA site to the city of Downey.

But early transfer authority allows the deferral of a Superfund deed covenant that requires "all remedial action necessary to protect human health and the environment" be completed prior to property transfer.

As for Armstrong, in May 2008, he retired from the EPA to join the Peace Corps and retreat to the West African nation of Mauritania.

Workers Fight Back

Downey workers have rallied together to fight for what they call much-deserved justice. In November 2009, a Los Angeles judge dismissed a libel lawsuit filed by IRG's Lichter against two ex-Downey workers and two operators of the Kaiserpapers Web site, which documents health concerns of former employees. Lichter did not return requests for comment. But he told the L.A. Times reporter last year that his company did an "amazing amount to transform this property, and everything we've done has been totally responsible."

Recently, Lawrence Rose, a former Cal/OSHA senior public health officer for 28 years, reviewed illness complaints of some Downey employees. He said these employees have an unusually high incidence of work-associated illnesses.

"In view of the long history of previous industrial activity, a thorough workplace investigation should be carried out in relation to the employee-illness complaints," Rose said. "The sampling for all toxic chemicals previously used there ... should be carried out in a systematic formal epidemiology study. This has not been done."

Back in Downey, after Gail Shephard retired in 2007, her daughter Kristi visited her ailing mother weekly. On March 22, 2009, Kristi, then only 36, called her mother complaining of a terrible earache. She died a few minutes later of a stroke. Shephard said one autopsy found high levels of two toxins in Kristi's brain stem. Shephard worries she may somehow be to blame; that she brought home toxic mold and fungi from her workplace.

As for Steve Basile, after undergoing physical therapy for his back injury, he returned to work as a prop maker until October 2009. He had lost almost 50 pounds -- unintentionally -- and could no longer work. Nowadays, he undergoes chemotherapy for cancerous blood proteins, and he suffers nose bleeds, shortness of breath, headaches and occasionally develops bumps in his throat.

"It sucks," Basile said. "I got no energy. Probably two days out of the week, I get out [of the house]. I'm sick pretty much all the time. I try to do things so I don't end up on the couch. If I go to the couch, I'll stay there for three days."

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