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Study Finds No Increase in Illness Near Plato Plant

January 03, 1988|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIMAS — Ever since Plato Products Inc. moved its metal-plating plant from El Monte to a Glendora location along the San Dimas city limits in 1984, residents here have worriedly questioned whether emissions from the plant posed a health hazard.

Now the county Department of Health Services is about to provide some answers.

In a report expected to be released this week, epidemiologists say that they have found no increased incidence of miscarriages, birth defects or other adverse effects among residents of nearby housing tracts. Almost all of the housing near the plant is in San Dimas.

"We don't have any evidence that anyone's getting sick out there," said Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the department's toxics and epidemiology program. "I think it's fair to reassure people."

The health department's inquiry was prompted last summer by reports of four miscarriages by women living in neighborhoods near the plant. About the same time, tests by the South Coast Air Quality Management District disclosed that the plant was emitting hexavalent chromium--a known carcinogen--in concentrations that violated air-quality standards.

Conditional Extension

Last month, an AQMD hearing board granted Plato a variance to continue operating until next October, while the firm installs a filtering system that would trap 99.5% of the hexavalent chromium released during the metal-plating process.

If the system works, the cancer risk would be reduced to less than one additional case per million people exposed to the toxin continuously over 70 years, a level within the air-pollution agency's guidelines. According to AQMD computer models, the current level is 10 times as high--10 cases per million.

In studying reports of health problems among people in surrounding neighborhoods, researchers found that the rates of miscarriages, birth defects, headaches, nausea and eye, throat and lung irritations in the three years since Plato opened the plant was no greater in San Dimas than in other areas.

"We couldn't distinguish the rates from what we would normally have as background rates," Papanek said. "The doses (of hexavalent chromium) that produce birth defects are a good thousand times the level you'd expect to see around Plato."

'People Badly Misinformed'

The report was viewed by Plato officials as proof that the plant's potential health risks have been overstated by residents who vigorously oppose the facility.

"That's what I expected," said Plato President George M. Kent. "It's been my feeling that the people have been badly misinformed as to health hazards."

That view is shared by Sharon Scott, a newly elected member of the Bonita Unified School District's Board of Trustees, which serves San Dimas and La Verne. Parents of children attending Arma J. Shull Elementary School--situated next door to the plant--have been panicked by concern about potential health risks, Scott said, and she has spent much of her first month on the school board working to calm those fears.

To dispel the misinformation that she said has spread through the community, Scott has scheduled a meeting Jan. 19 at Shull School, at which Papanek and AQMD pollution control engineers will answer parents' questions about toxic emissions from the plant.

"The most important thing is for the community to understand that these health risks do not exist," Scott said. "I don't think anybody's going to be convinced until they hear the information from the professionals."

Scott said she first became aware of the depth of parents' fears about the plant while campaigning for the school board. After attending last month's AQMD hearing board meeting, at which board members characterized the health threat from Plato as "more perception than reality," Scott dedicated herself to changing those perceptions.

"It was really distressing to hear the fears of the parents in that area," Scott said. "The fear was just being magnified because there were no real solid facts or boundaries to contain the panic."

The fear bred by uncertainty about whether the plants' emissions pose a grave danger to schoolchildren and pregnant women "could be just as dangerous, if not more so, than the health hazard itself," she went on.

"I think there seems to be a temporary sense of relief that the meeting is going to happen," Scott said. "I would like to see it as the beginning of leaving this entire issue behind us."

Protest Leader Unsatisfied

However, Jeff Schenkel is not at all relieved by Scott's efforts. The father of two children at Shull School, Schenkel has led the residents' campaign against Plato since he formed the Concerned Citizens Committee in 1984 to protest against the firm's setting up shop next to a school without first obtaining a new pollution-control permit.

Noting that the plant's proposed pollution control system has yet to be installed or tested, Schenkel said that Scott is unduly hasty in proclaiming that the health threat from Plato is a phantom.

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