SOUTH GATE — Long-awaited medical exams for up to 600 children at Tweedy Elementary School will begin today in hopes of answering questions about possible health hazards at the school, which is in a heavily industrialized area.
Initial surveys and exams by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services show no health problems. But the Los Angeles Unified School District will conduct the exams in an attempt to assure parents that their children are not being affected by chemical emissions from nearby industries.
Meanwhile, 26 parents and school staff members have filed a claim against the City of South Gate, saying that they continue to suffer respiratory problems, skin and eye irritations, digestive tract distress and headaches following a February chemical spill a block from the school that released a cloud of chlorine gas. A spokesman for the claimants said blood and urine tests on 49 students and staff from the school "have revealed very significant levels of toxic chemicals."
Parents and school staff have urged the district for months to offer medical exams for students to see if they are suffering from the effects of the February chlorine spill and from ongoing emissions from several nearby firms.
Ringed by 16 Industries
The school, at 5115 Southern Ave., is surrounded by at least 16 industrial companies. Parents have long complained about pungent odors at the school. But the parents began urging intensive studies of their children's health after the spill from the nearby Purex Corp. plant sent 71 people, including 27 children, to hospitals for nausea and dizziness.
In a school meeting that lasted more than three hours last week, parents were informed about the results of various studies and surveys conducted by the county Health Department and South Coast Air Quality Management District, the school district. They also heard from James Dahlgren, the physician who conducted blood and urine tests on behalf of parents and staff who have filed a claim against the city.
Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of epidemiology for the county Health Department, told parents that if their "child is not sick, your child is safe. If your child is sick, get him checked.
"If you don't have symptoms now, you won't," said Papanek, who noted that chlorine gas is a powerful irritant to lungs when inhaled in large amounts.
Papanek, who oversaw a staff questionnaire and a study of student absentee rates, said that the concentration of chemicals inhaled daily by children and school staff is too small to cause a long-term health problem.
"There won't be a delayed effect. There won't be a delayed reaction. Body damage won't happen if you are not a person having problems today," he said.
Although Health Department studies indicated that there was not an increase in asthma cases among Tweedy students, Papanek warned parents whose children have asthma to transfer their children to another school.
"Anytime you're exposed to something irritating, you're more likely to be (sensitive). If you have an asthmatic child sensitive to this environment, your child should not be here," Papanek said.
Subjects From Similar Backgrounds
He said there was no noticeable difference in absentee rates between Tweedy students and students at San Gabriel Avenue Elementary School, which is also in South Gate. It was selected for comparison because its students come from similar socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds as those at Tweedy, and is also on a year-round calendar. It is different in that it is in a residential area not affected by chemical fumes.
Papanek said the questionnaire answered by Tweedy staff members found adults reporting a higher rate of similar symptoms: irritation of the eyes, stomachaches and sore throats. But Papanek said the overall rates of asthma and bronchitis among Tweedy staff members are lower than the national average.
24 Children Hospitalized
Dr. Helen Hale, who is in charge of the school district's student health division, said 24 children who were hospitalized following the toxic spill were seen by district medical staff and that no symptoms related to the chlorine exposure were found.
"We find no evidence that any of your children have suffered from a long-term effect," Hale told parents at the meeting.
But because parents pressed for all the children to be examined because they breathe chemical emissions daily, the district agreed to extend the exams to all Tweedy students, school board member John Greenwood said. The exams, which will be done without charge to parents, will be conducted at the school through Dec. 2. Greenwood said the procedure will include a history of symptoms and a physical examination, which may include a breathing test.
If a child needs further tests or examinations, he or she will be referred to the family's private physician, Hale said.
Principal David Sanchez said 140 parents have already signed up for the the medical exams and the school is planning to send letters to all parents who missed the meeting.