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How one journalist used data to prod Calif.’s governor to protect workers from lead

How one journalist used data to prod Calif.’s governor to protect workers from lead

Picture of Joe Rubin
(Photo: Capital & Main)
Target Masters West, a gun range in the Bay Area. A lead-poisoned whistleblower in the 1990s had warned that the range was likely spewing lead through an inadequate ventilation system.
(Photo: Capital & Main)

The national anthem was playing as I was momentarily stalled by an usher halting foot traffic heading to seats at a recent pre-season Sacramento Kings game. Hat awkwardly over heart, just then my cell phone lit up with a message from a staffer with California Assemblymember Ash Kalra's office with news I had been anxiously awaiting.

I’m a sucker for a nice rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but it was particularly sweet and poignant that night. For two years I’ve been pounding out investigative pieces about how screwed up California’s system to protect workers and their families from the ravages of lead poisoning is. Last year a bill based on that reporting was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. But this year, I learned as I read the message on my phone, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 35, a bill that forces California's Department of Public Health (CDPH) to refer cases where workers have blood lead levels above a certain level to the enforcement agency Cal/OSHA.

It’s thrilling to think that the press and, specifically in this case, access to public records, had ultimately led the governor to reject the advice of his own health department and a legion of industry lobbyists. 

Kalra, a Democrat who represents San Jose, took up the bill in 2018 after learning of my reporting as a 2017 Data Fellow with USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism. Early in the legislative cycle, I was asked to swing by Kalra’s office to share more background as he prepared to make the case for the bill on various committees and the Assembly and Senate floor.

What originally got Kalra's attention was the data I gathered, which clearly showed that CDPH knew of hundreds of deeply worrying blood lead tests and did little more than send a form letter in response. But Kalra leaned forward in rapt attention when I shared accounts I'd gathered from former workers who melted down car batteries in the lead smelting rooms at the former Exide Battery recycling center in Vernon, California.

It’s thrilling to think that the press and, specifically in this case, access to public records, had ultimately led the governor to reject the advice of his own health department and a legion of industry lobbyists. 

Lead is a neurotoxin and with prolonged exposure it attacks nearly every vital organ in the body. Kidney's fail, teeth rot, blood pressure rises, and impotence, anxiety and depression can result. Those are the kind of symptoms health journalists rattle off in articles. But what I've learned from intimate conversations with sources is that dealing with lead-related symptoms over time is an awful and lonely plight. Take it from the wife of a prideful 50-year-old former Exide worker who can no longer have marital relations and suffers from tremors, forgetfulness and kidney disease. 

Or how about the helplessness the mother of an 18-year-old Sacramento man named Jason feels? Jason thought it was just a summer job when he was assigned by a city recreation department to sweep up a Sacramento gun range in 2014. But ever since, his dreams of college have been derailed by debilitating anger management issues and stints in jail and homelessness. Did the massive amounts of lead he was exposed to on a daily basis cause Jason's life to fall apart? No one can say for certain. Lots of issues impact young African-American men like Jason. But one thing is for certain: CDPH knew that the gun range Jason worked at had airborne lead dust 50 times above hazardous levels. The health department also knew that 12 years before Jason swept up some of that lead dust, a worker had been severely poisoned by lead. CDPH told the city of Sacramento that they could refer the case to Cal/OSHA. But the department preferred to work collaboratively with employers. So nothing happened, save a few form letters. Now there is a law to protect future workers like Jason. It states that serious lead poisoning cases “constitute a serious violation and subject the employer or place of employment to an investigation.”

I didn't take it personally when Kalra's first attempt a law protecting workers was vetoed by Brown. The governor had more than a thousand bills to consider that year. But as I wrote in the Los Angeles Times afterwards, what troubled me about the veto was that Brown was following the advice of his own public health department. In his veto statement, Brown said the law was unnecessary because CDPH already refers workplace lead cases to Cal/OSHA “for enforcement, if needed, on a case-by-case basis.” As I knew from the data, that just wasn't true. 

Honestly, I felt like giving up. There is that fine line between continuing an investigation and obsessing over it. I felt I was becoming “lead man,” and a lot of other investigative stories were beckoning. But Capital & Main's editor Steven Mikulan and publisher Danny Feingold encouraged me to keep going. They prodded me to find out why the veto happened? What lobbying forces were at play? And then in February, Kalra reintroduced his bill. Not only did he keep the bill intact, resisting pressure from lobbyists to water it down, he made the bill’s protections even stronger.

I went back to the data. This time I crunched the numbers to find the five workplaces which year-after-year had workers with the highest blood lead levels. At the top of that list was a Bay Area gun range called Target Masters West. After I requested emails between CDPH and the gun range, I learned that a lead-poisoned whistleblower in the 1990s had warned that the range was likely spewing lead through an inadequate ventilation system. Still no referral to Cal/OSHA. 

Then I found something even more startling. The gun range was literally next door to a kid’s gymnastics center. I felt a simmering sense of outrage which made me uncomfortable. It didn’t feel very reporterly. My daughters had both attended similar gymnastic warehouse spaces when they were toddlers. I could only imagine how the mostly immigrant parents in Milpitas would feel learning that state officials had failed to do anything about the dangerous gun range next door, despite decades of evidence of a problem. 

Long story short, after I shared data with Cal/EPA (shouldn't CDPH be sharing data with Cal/EPA?), an inspection ensued. The gun range is now permanently closed. A Cal/OSHA enforcement case is also ongoing. Unfortunately, lead from the gun range did indeed contaminate the gymnastics center as well. That means kids were tumbling in lead dust for years. 

So, what's the moral of this lead reporting marathon? Relentless journalist shames the state of California into protecting the public? That would be a nice ego boost. But while I played a role, this was a team effort. And I don’t think that real change happens from shaming. While national health experts tell me the bill Gov. Newsom signed is sound policy, it can’t force health officials to perform their jobs with vigilance and excellence.

Perhaps the real story is the fact that people inside CDPH are clamoring for change. After I published my latest story on the cozy relationship between CDPH’s government affairs division and industry lobbyists, I heard from a number of people inside the department, some high ranking, all thanking me for my reporting. A common complaint I’ve heard is that staff are hamstrung, forbidden from talking to the press or to the state legislature, even when they have valuable input or expertise to share on vital health issues. One person wrote me to tell me they especially appreciated my reporting on ethics and conflict of interest issues within the department. CDPH’s recently departed director, I reported, owned stock in chemical and pharmaceutical companies. “I want it known that such poor motivations aren’t shared by most employees here,” the CDPH employee said.

A new director of CDPH, appointed by Newsom, started this week, Dr. Sonia Angell. Dr. Angell has an impressive background: She served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, studied tropical medicine and hygiene at the London School and has an MPH from the University of Michigan. That’s on top of a leadership position she had at the New York City Department of Health. Angell will also have a new law to work with that empowers her department to protect workers from lead poisoning. Let’s hope she thinks that is a good thing.

Find the stories Joe Rubin reported on lead in California here.

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