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Parents Fear Foul Fumes At School : Symptoms Spur Health Concerns About Nearby Industries

September 07, 1986|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH GATE — When children eat their lunch at Tweedy Elementary School, they sit alongside a gray block wall.

The wall is part of the Cooper Drum Co., an Atlantic Avenue firm that refurbishes 55-gallon steel drums used in the oil industry.

Long a neighbor to the school, the company changed some of its operations this year in response to complaints from parents and school employees about the pungent smell of chemicals from that company and other nearby firms.

But now parents in this 85% Latino school are running into a wall of a different kind.

In April, parents pushed for more action after a February chlorine spill at another nearby plant heightened fears that the proximity of industrial firms to the school on Southern Avenue posed a long-term health hazard.

They pressed city, county and state officials with their concerns about recurring illnesses and health problems among school staff, students and nearby residents.

No Answers for Parents

Parents are still pushing and still getting no answers.

"I should be worried about how well my children are doing in school, not how safe is the school," said Socorro Cuadra, who has three children attending Tweedy.

At the urging of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), the county Department of Health Services agreed to survey school personnel's health problems to determine if the symptoms can be traced to the school. But parents are unhappy because the children--who share exposure with the teachers and aides--will not be included.

School staff and parents say workers and children have consistently complained about similar symptoms for several years: headaches, stomachaches, sore throats, swollen eyes, chest pains and allergies.

They are worried that serious health problems may develop as a result of long-term exposure to fumes from the many industries in the school's vicinity. Staff and parents say industrial odors are common in the schoolyard, and range from chlorine to paint to soap. The South Coast Air Quality Management District says it receives several complaints each week about odors at the school.

"My children often tell me, 'Mommy, I feel sick,' " said Ruth Jimenez, who works as a teacher's aide and is president of the school's advisory council. She noted that her children--three now attend Tweedy and two others have graduated--frequently complain of stomachaches, headaches and sore throats.

Complaining Since late 1984

Cuadra said she has been complaining about the problem since she moved to South Gate in late 1984.

"I started to smell strange odors in the school. They were very strong," Cuadra said.

When her children didn't want to eat their food because of stomachaches, she thought they were making it up, she said. Then they started throwing up.

"I started to get concerned. I started to complain," she said.

Jimenez, like other parents and staff, said she is tired of waiting "for answers. Parents know what is going on and they feel nothing is being done. We want to know what the companies . . . have done."

Jimenez said parents felt reassured in April when Waters asked local and county officials to meet with parents and school personnel. The result was promises to look into the problem by the air-quality district and health department to, which completed its survey last month.

However, no one at the school knows the status of the studies.

Waters, who said she was recently informed about the "bureaucratic bog-down," has given the agencies until Monday to report on their findings.

Will Urge School's Closure

Waters is convinced that the data will corroborate claims by parents and school workers, she said, and when she has the documentation she will "ask the school board to close the school."

"The school is located in the heart of an industrial area. It doesn't take a Harvard scholar to see the potential of exposure is so great," she said in an interview last week.

If the information is not received, Waters said, she will conduct a hearing and subpoena records.

Parents and staff have been living with the chemical odors for years. But it took the release in February of deadly chlorine gas at Purex Corp.'s plant at Firestone Boulevard and Rayo Avenue to provoke community action. The accident sent 71 people, including 27 children, to hospitals with nausea and dizziness; 400 children and staff were evacuated as the cloud drifted over Tweedy Elementary.

"The spill acted as a catalyst for community involvement," said Principal David Sanchez, who noted that "concerns about air quality date back to October, 1984." Before, he said, parents had complained privately to him about the "safety and welfare of their children" playing so close to industries.

Sanchez was hospitalized during the chlorine spill, and said his throat remains red and sore.

Seeking Pattern

Paul Papanek, chief of the health department's toxics epidemiology program, said the survey is intended to show if there is a "pattern of complaints" at the school.

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