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'Some Days the Air Stinks So Bad, It's Crazy'

December 01, 1991|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Johnny Birchfield will not miss the pungent smells that sometimes invaded his former home in a neighborhood of spit-shined houses and emerald lawns next to the Lakewood Country Club--but also just across the street from Douglas Aircraft Co. in Long Beach.

The aircraft factory released more than 1 million pounds of toxic emissions last year, making it the largest single source of toxic air pollution in the Southeast/Long Beach area, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.

Toxic emissions include substances that cause cancer, damage various bodily organs and erode the Earth's protective ozone layer. And they add to the health risk posed by the more ubiquitous lung-damaging smog that clings to the Los Angeles area like a brown blanket.

"You could smell the solvents, the kerosene," Birchfield, 33, said recently as he packed some belongings in a truck and prepared to move from the house he leased for seven years on Ann Arbor Road in Lakewood. "Some days the air stinks so bad, it's crazy."

About eight miles northeast, on the border of Santa Fe Springs and La Mirada, a breeze carried the odor of sulfur and oil into a neighborhood next to the Golden West Refinery, another of the largest toxic air polluters in the area.

"The people in our family get sick from that smell on bad days," said Rick Arce, 21, who grew up on Ramsey Drive in La Mirada, a stone's throw from the refinery. "We've had upset stomachs and headaches."

Many of the manufacturers that discharge toxic pollutants into the air are in industrial areas, a good distance from homes and parks. But others, such as Douglas Aircraft and Golden West Refinery, are next to residential neighborhoods.

Some residents close their windows at night to keep out the odors. Children say the smells have forced them to halt neighborhood football games. Residents such as Birchfield have packed their bags in search of cleaner air. Others contemplate moving.

But other residents say they get along just fine, hardly noticing the pollution that comes from their industrial neighbors. And few of the residents interviewed by The Times said they worry about the health effects. After all, many said, air pollution is a reality of life in Southern California.

Recent studies indicate, however, that people living downwind from the plants face a potentially serious health risk: a slightly increased chance of contracting cancer.

Workers at Douglas Aircraft will have produced more than 170 commercial aircraft for delivery by the end of this year. Work also is continuing on the new C-17 military transport jet, but no deliveries are expected until 1992.

Founded in 1940, the plant spreads over 420 acres along Long Beach's border with Lakewood.

Two industrial solvents--methylene chloride and 1,1,1-trichloroethane--accounted for most of the 1.37 million pounds of toxic emissions released by the plant last year, according to reports filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Methylene chloride is a probable carcinogen, and 1,1,1-trichloroethane depletes the Earth's ozone layer. Douglas Aircraft uses the solvents for cleaning and degreasing.

In accordance with state law, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has required Douglas Aircraft--and nearly 400 other firms--to produce studies that forecast the health risk such emissions pose to area residents.

The Douglas Aircraft study, submitted to the AQMD earlier this year, projects that someone who spends a lifetime in a house subjected to the greatest exposure faces a risk of contracting cancer of 620 in 1 million. That point of greatest exposure is near Birchfield's former residence. Theoretically, if 1 million people were to spend 70 years at that location, 620 would develop cancer as a direct result of emissions from the plant.

Douglas Aircraft contracted with the Radian Corp. of Austin, Tex., to perform the study, which the AQMD is reviewing for accuracy.

Air quality officials may eventually require firms such as Douglas Aircraft to reduce their toxic emissions.

The risk posed by Douglas Aircraft may seem small, but it would be unacceptable for a new firm wishing to move into the area. As a rule, the AQMD does not allow new firms to operate if they pose a cancer risk of more than 10 in 1 million. As an existing facility, Douglas Aircraft is exempted from that AQMD regulation.

The residents downwind and closest to the plant face the largest health risk, but the impact of such large volumes of toxic emissions is widespread. The emissions from Douglas Aircraft increase the cancer risk by as much as 1 in a million for residents as far north as Downey and more than 20 miles to the east, past Anaheim Hills in Orange County, according to the study.

But those health risks are projections based on computer modeling. There have been no comprehensive studies of residents living near Douglas Aircraft.

Long Beach health officials and Lakewood city officials say they have received no reports of illness attributed to emissions from the plant.

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