When the spotty red rash erupted on 11-year-old Jamie Swiger's stomach, her mother assumed it was the chicken pox. Then it spread to Jamie's hands, crept up her body to her face and refused to fade away. Soon schoolmates had a nickname for the pretty blonde girl: "Mosquito."
Only three doors away, Cynthia Babich was staring in the mirror at a strange rash on her face. Across the street, Carmen Herrera puzzled over the rash that traveled from her face to her neck, her shoulders, her hands, her back and her legs.
Not until DDT was unearthed in two back yards did many families on and near West 204th Street east of Torrance begin comparing notes about rashes, headaches, dizziness, nausea, aching joints and morning nosebleeds.
Suspicions began spreading that these mysterious ailments may somehow be linked to two toxic chemical sites. That suspicion deepened with the discovery that other residents had complained of similar symptoms 10 years ago, that they had lobbied hard for government agencies to pay attention--and that some of them quietly moved away after receiving payments in the wake of a secret legal agreement.
Once-complacent families have turned disbelieving and angry, especially when three sets of government tests in recent months found DDT in the soil behind two homes--each test reading higher than the one before it, the most recent showing the banned pesticide 45 times the level considered safe.
Today, such deep distrust pervades this community that residents routinely videotape their meetings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"The EPA, the government, I don't have faith in them now," says Jamie's mother, Marla Frame. "Anyone who lives here has a raw deal."
Environmental and health officials have attempted to soothe residents, telling them that no evidence connects their ailments with the sites of a former DDT manufacturing plant and a long-dismantled synthetic rubber factory. They cite years of testing and a 1987 health study that did not turn up increased patterns or unusual rates of cancer or mortality in the area.
"The evidence does point away from a significant and important health risk for a great majority of people in the neighborhood," said Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the toxics epidemiology program at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
Despite such assurances, the neighborhood remains on alert.
Many homes stand empty along West 204th Street after 25 families were moved to hotels at federal expense for the duration of the two-week DDT cleanup. Work started Thursday to excavate more than 8,000 cubic feet of soil.
Other signs hint that something is amiss. Monitoring wells dot the streets, part of a system of more than 100 wells intended to detect the benzene and other chemicals that have contaminated ground water 60 to 90 feet underground.
The chain-mesh fence separating homes from the Del Amo toxic waste dump is hung with signs warning "Caution! Hazardous Waste Area."
Even the mail brings reminders that the area is under surveillance: a special EPA newsletter and a polite letter about well monitoring from Shell Oil Co. and the Dow Chemical Co., two companies that are among the potentially responsible parties at the former rubber factory site.
Such is daily life next to two toxic chemical sites--one a federal Superfund site, the other a Superfund nominee--and some weary residents say they have had enough.
Babich, who has emerged as a community leader since DDT was found in her yard, thinks the government should permanently relocate residents--a step the EPA calls unlikely and unnecessary. She is reluctant to return home.
"I could go back and play house again," Babich said. "But it's playing house on top of a chemical dump."
Until recently, few people had heard of this pocket of small, one-story homes hidden deep in the manufacturing heart of the South Bay.
The community lacks a local government or even a name of its own.
"Just call this Chemical City," Herrera quips.
Sandwiched between Torrance and Carson, it is unincorporated county territory, meaning that residents have no city council to lobby for them. It is sliced into two congressional districts, further diluting its political clout.
Some were drawn here by the prospect of low rents. Babich, a former office manager, and her husband, a machinist, rent their small, two-bedroom home on West 204th Street for $500 a month.
Their street, the epicenter of the DDT controversy, is a hodgepodge of spruced-up bungalows, boasting gardens abloom with roses, alongside tumbledown houses with scraggly lawns.
Barely out of view are manufacturing plants, oil refineries, tank farms, railroad tracks, freeway intersections and the two toxic chemical sites.