Los Angeles has a Big Hex Chrome Problem

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The Los Angeles area has been known for its eye-watering smog and air pollution since the 1950s. Although visible smog has waned in recent years due to the Clean Air Act, state and national emissions standards, and other pollution-minimizing laws, there are dangerous air pollutants that are not visible to the eye- and that are still being produced by manufacturing facilities in Los Angeles.

Air Pollution is No Joke
Air pollution has been linked to serious illnesses like asthma, heart disease, and cancer, and high enough exposure can lead to premature death. In 2008, approximately 127 million people in the US lived in areas that were heavily polluted. Often a majority of the people living in these areas were low-income people of color. Across the US, a pattern emerges – pollution hotspots centered around low-income, non-white neighborhoods.

This pattern can be starkly observed in the City of Paramount, a geographically small but densely populated city in Southeast Los Angeles, sandwiched between Compton, Long Beach, and Downey. Paramount is less than five square miles in area yet is home to hundreds of businesses and nearly 56,000 residents – primarily low-income families, 80% of whom are Latino. In the past few years, Paramount residents concerned about their loved ones’ health have started to speak up about increasing air pollution in the city.

Why Paramount?
Paramount has played host to metal manufacturing businesses since the early 20th century when Carlton Forge opened its doors in 1929, and Weber Metals in 1945. However, it didn’t become an industry-heavy city until the 1960s and 1970s, when this part of Los Angeles shifted from an agriculturally-centered economy to one focused on low-technology industries such as auto repair and metal processing. According to the local air quality monitoring agency, there are 141 metal-related facilities currently in Paramount, although community members have identified an additional 35 facilities that they believe are polluters as well. The facilities provide a myriad of metal-related services: grinding, sanding, plating, electroplating, welding, heat treating, cutting, rolling, pressing, forging, fabricating, polishing, milling, cooling, conversion coating, anodizing, spray-coating, and more.

Some of the worst offenders of air pollution in the city are metal plating and anodizing facilities. These facilities complete the manufacturing process for various metal products, coating them in chromium to give them a shiny, bright finish. The chromium coating prevents the metal from corroding, and is common in many everyday products, from plumbing fixtures to wheel hubcaps. The process involves dipping the unfinished metal pieces in a large tank of chromium solution and then run an electrical charge through the tank. The electricity causes the chromium in the solution to attach to the pieces, but it also releases a fine mist of hexavalent chromium into the air of the facility. If these pieces are ground, there is a further release of the chemical into the air.

Hex Chrome
Hexavalent chromium, also known as Chrome-6 and commonly shortened to hex chrome, is a dangerous cancer-causing chemical that is mostly man-made. Short-term exposure to hex chrome can cause skin, eye, and breathing problems, including asthma symptoms. Long-term exposure can lead to nose and lung cancer.

The hex chrome mists and grinding particulates from these facilities eventually make their way into the air of surrounding neighborhoods, through windows, open doors, and unfiltered air vents. Many of these manufacturing facilities are located directly across the street from schools, homes, and community centers, putting Paramount residents at high risk of inhaling unsafe amounts of hex chrome.

This constant flow of pollution into Paramount has not gone unnoticed – community groups have mobilized to crack down on the offending facilities and protect Paramount residents. These groups include, but are not limited to, the Concerned Paramount Residents Fight Pollution, Paramount Community Coalition Against Toxics, and Social Eco Education (S.E.E.). But it is still an uphill battle for these community organizations.

Local media has also taken note, reporting on multiple forced closures of one polluter by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, detailing the history of poor air quality in the area, and sharing the story of a local teacher who continues to spread awareness after one of her eight-year-old students died from cancer.

The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) used California’s strong consumer protection and right-to-know law, Proposition 65, to initiate litigation against Paramount polluters in late 2016. Our goal was to support better enforcement and air monitoring in Paramount, improve pollution controls, and establish a system for alerting residents to exposures to hexavalent chromium. CEH has developed partnerships with several community organizations to make sure local stakeholders’ interests are reflected in the proceedings. CEH completed litigation with three companies in Paramount in 2018. Proceeds from the litigation are being used to purchase air filters for residents living closest to the facilities.

Paramount is one of many communities in California and across the United States affected by industrial pollution. Inadequate pollution controls, lack of resources for community advocates, and insufficient government regulation have led to a widespread environmental justice problem across the country. In city after city and state after state, communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by industrial pollution. Communities who live and work on the frontlines of industrial pollution and suffer the related health effects have always led the fight for clean air, water, and soil. 

CEH seeks to amplify community advocacy through media and legal support, serve as a source of scientific research and expertise, and support communities’ movements to build power and take back their health.
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