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Health Effects of Sargent-Fletcher Plant Are Hard to Discern : Chrome-plating factory reported toxic emissions at the highest level in the area. But the company disputes the data, citing smog as a more probable reason for neighbor's breathing ailments.


Look at the neighborhood surrounding Sargent-Fletcher and you are looking at the complexities of sorting out the relationship between health risks and pollution.

The El Monte chrome-plating plant, which turns out aerospace parts, showed the highest cancer-risk level of any business in the San Gabriel Valley, according to a 1991 report the company submitted to regional air quality officials. Company officials now say the finding resulted from an outdated and erroneous report and that they have cut production of the aerospace parts that it makes, reducing the amount of chromium being emitted. But neighbors still wonder if their coughs and wheezing might be linked to chromium or other toxic air pollution from the plant.

The uncertainty surrounding the issue is as thick as the gray-brown haze that often obscures El Monte's skyline on a sunny day. Backed up against the San Bernardino (10) Freeway, the neighborhood surrounding the plant is rife with smog and auto emissions, which Sargent-Fletcher officials maintain are far more likely to cause breathing problems than their company's emissions.

Figuring out what, if any, health problems are cause by the factory emissions, or from the the smog and exhaust--or from just plain coincidental illnesses that would have cropped up even without pollutants--is no easy task.

Air quality experts acknowledge that breathing more than one type of pollutant can add to, or even multiply, the health risks. And neighbors fear the cornucopia of chemicals in their air is more than their lungs can handle.

"The smog plus the chromium from this company will injure us doubly," said Aniano Vicente, a former surgeon at Monrovia Community Hospital, who resigned this year after he was hospitalized with asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis. Several nearby neighbors complain of chronic respiratory ailments.

A report the company submitted to the AQMD in 1991 estimated that the factory's emissions may increase the cancer rate in surrounding areas by 120 cases per million people.

The company maintains that mistakes in its original report exaggerated the amount of chromium the plant releases.

"The emission factors used to calculate hexavalent chromium in the 1991 health-risk assessment do not represent actual processes at Sargent-Fletcher Co.," said Ed Hilbert, the plant's environmental consultant. "These factors were based on incorrect estimates by a contractor who completed the report. . . . The company is in the process of preparing a revised health-risk assessment based on a more realistic emission factor."

The earlier contractor estimated the emissions from the plant's manufacturing process to be 10,000 times higher than those of other facilities that use the exact same process, Hilbert said. In addition, he said, aerospace cutbacks have meant downsizing at the plant since the report was submitted; therefore, it uses, and releases, less chromium.

He adds that the emissions levels are based on a theoretical model and would probably be lower if they were actually measured.

When scientists at the state agency reviewed the original report, they found that the risk was in fact lower--but not by much. Their review showed that Sargent-Fletcher poses a cancer risk of 85 in a million, said research scientist Judy Rosenbaum. In addition, its acute hazard level--the index used to measure health effects other than cancer--is 3.3. An acute hazard level of 1.0 requires a company to notify neighbors. A level of 5.0 forces them to reduce emissions.

And a profile of chromium by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services links exposure to the chemical among workers to respiratory ailments such as nasal irritation, perforated or ulcerated septums, labored breathing, coughs and wheezing.

Dr. Melanie Marty of the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which reviews the health risk assessments companies such as Sargent-Fletcher have submitted to the AQMD, said that chromium is more likely to cause cancer than respiratory problems--a chilling reassurance to residents.

Hilbert suggested that the health hazards of smog and car pollution are probably greater than the danger of emissions from Sargent-Fletcher.

"When I drive through the San Gabriel Valley, I have trouble breathing," he said.

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