When workers tore out the walls of her former apartment, Rene Carter said the black mold was everywhere. There was also white and red mold. It was at that point that management in the HUD-financed New Wilmington Arms began to pay attention.
But after living in the apartment since 2002 with her children and seeing herself and family suffer from a series of mysterious illnesses including a virus one doctor described as something typically seen in Third World countries, the situation had already progressed too far for Carter.
The same may be the case for one of her neighbors in the Compton-based apartment complex.
Celestine Harrell and her family also moved in during 2002.
"After two weeks there, the house flooded. We woke up to water. We reported it, they came in and fixed it, and in six months it did the same thing."
Harrell said it flooded several more times that year, two times in 2003, and in 2004, then what she called "the big flood" occurred
"I woke up to a flood of hot water, and I had to step in water that contained electrical plugs, because my child was in his room sleeping," recalled the 41-year-old mother.
She and her son finally waded out the front door without injury while the water continued to gush. The fire department was called, but could not initially shut off the water nor could the building security or management. About one and a half hours after it started, the flood of water was stopped leaving Harrell with about two-inches of standing water in her apartment.
"The fire department scooted water out, and when you went in there and looked around, you see the mold and mildew all over the place. That was from the flooding all the time," Harrell said.
Like Carter, during that six-year period, Harrell, her children and husband suffered from continuous allergies and rashes. Harrell, who described herself as a fit and "hyper" person prior to moving into New Wilmington Arms, developed asthma that has left her with a hacking cough and continuos secretion of phlegm.
Carter and Harrell said their ongoing complaints were not truly addressed by the county health department or city officials. And each time they reported a problem, the women said the complex management simply came in and painted over the mold and mildew.
Today both are awaiting the results of testing: For a virus (in Carter's case), and respiratory ailments (Harrell's case), and both attribute these conditions to living for six long years in such a toxic environment.
According to Alton Donatto of the Compton Legal Aid Society, he has documented reports from county and city inspectors about the mold, but because the management company paints it over, these agencies do not have the money or staffing to follow up properly.
He also noted that other residents (all of whom are low income) have not come forward because of fear of retaliation by the building managers and finding themselves with no place to live and not enough money to afford to go some place else.
While most people do not live in such an apparently overt unhealthful environment as Carter and Harrell, toxic living is a daily reality for people in Los Angeles. From vehicle pollution, to asbestos, to oil drilling to trash carelessly dropped in the street that attracts rodents and disease carrying insects like roaches and flies, Angelenos are faced with a barrage of pollutants that can and do make them sick. Often people, including medical personnel, fail to properly attribute diseases to toxic surroundings.
"Los Angeles is consistently ranked by national science organizations as among the five worse (areas in air quality,) and we are often ranked as one or two," said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, who is with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department and heads the Toxic Epidemiology program.
There are three key things that make the county so toxic, said the medical toxicologist--our own lifestyles, the industrial environment and the geography.
"If you talk to the AQMD (Air Quality Management District), they will tell you it depends on the time (of year). About 50 to 90 percent of the daily pollution comes form operating cars and trucks. We have a lot of issues in term of trying to clean up fuel efficiency and getting people to take public transportation. We're not doing that enough," noted Rangan.
On the industry side, in L.A., the stationary sources (of toxic pollutants) such as the factories and smoke stacks, unlike in states such as Michigan are scattered all around the region.
There are also two major culprits for some of the pollution, pointed out Rangan--the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
"About 70 to 90 percent of all the goods that come into the country come into those (ports). And it's not just the ships coming in. It's the fact that ships come in, dock and don't turn off their engines. It takes a lot of energy and resources (to start up a ship)."
Consequently, Rangan said these ships sit in port with engines idling sometimes for days, and the health officials pointed out that vessels that sit idling produce more pollutants than those moving.
Rangan said there is a lot of other stationary equipment at the ports.
"Then you factor in all the trucks and trains that leave the port, and you have a big huge mess in terms of air quality," Rangan said.
The other problem is the geography of Los Angeles.
"L.A. is one big bowl, and all the mountains surround it . . . essentially the crudest way to put it is that we make more (pollution) than we can get rid of," explained Rangan.
All of these minute pollutants (called fine particulate matter), can cause health problems that range from increased incidents of asthma and possible vascular and heart disease to more respiratory issues and even cancer.
Other toxins found in the environment include lead, and the top sources include paint, dirt and factories. Rangan said that lead is a silent killer and people with high levels can look normal for long periods of time.
Among some of the symptoms are high blood pressure, anemia and nervous system damage.
But toxins are present in other areas beyond homes and the air, believes Stacie Kelley, a naturopathic doctor who has been practicing since 2004.
"It's in the food, the soil--basically our lifestyle is completely toxic. The more advanced we get, the more we used methods that exude toxins," pointed out Kelley, who owns Pacific Bay Naturopathic Health, and took this direction because she wanted to be a doctor but felt that instead of filling the body with pharmaceuticals, it is better to treat the body so that it can heal itself.
"A lot of foods consumers eat is processed so that it can have a longer shelf life, and preservatives are very, very toxic. Cured meat has nitrates," continued Kelly, "and these cause a lot of free radicals. These are like electron charges that attach to molecules they should not attach to and change the function of the molecule. Cells are made of molecules. This (alteration process) can cause diseases, and cancer is one of the primary ones."
The average person, said Kelley, gets up in the morning, consumes a breakfast filled with preservatives, drives to work breathing in toxic fumes, has a lunch filled with preservatives, and drives home breathing more toxic fumes. They wear clothing that have been dry cleaned.
"The majority of our day we are impacted by toxins," Kelley said.
Shani Chen, who with her partner Joseph Jones, co-founded Oshune Body Care in Los Angeles, said the death of a 31-year-old friend because of cancer was one catalyst behind the launch of their natural body care products company.
"It was a wake up call to start examining everything we consumed through our mouths and put on our body. It got to the point where we were literally starting to look at everything. From deodorant to toothpaste; anything we could do to eliminate the toxins from our bodies.
Chen and Jones replaced the preservative- filled soaps, hair shampoos, lotions and more with handcrafted body care products made from natural ingredients like fruits and nut oils.
Their goals is to help people avoid developing disease as a result of highly toxic bodies.
Dr. Kelley has the same goals, and offers some signs that may signal that your body contains dangerous levels of toxicity.
"One of the first signs is extreme fatigue and altered mental function," said the Los Angeles-based medical practitioner. "Living in L.A. you can't avoid it, so it's wise to detox your body two to three times a year," advised Kelley, who noted that violence and the threat of violence also creates an emotional toxicity that must also be dealt with.
Other signs of high levels of toxins in the body include a change in appetite either eating more or eating less; any type of change in bowel habits; lots of aches and pains; severe headaches, nausea and dizziness, which may be caused by medication toxicity.
Chen of Oshune Body Care, said awareness of the toxins is another key to potentially avoiding them.
"When we initially started our company, we made a pamphlet that broke down the (troublesome) ingredients in mass consumer products. But we're not telling people what not to or what to use. We want to create awareness so people have a choice so they can make educated decisions."
Chen said the ingredients you should look for are: proplyene glycol, which means a product is basically made from petroleum which comes from gasoline. Because skin is the largest living organ on the body, Chen said it needs vitamins. Using products based on this ingredient on the skin deprive it of nutrients.
Parabens is a synthetic chemical used to preserve cosmetics. It's toxic and allergenic.
Triethanolamine, which is an amino alcohol made from ammonia and ethyl oxide, is a preservative and may be contaminated with carcinogens.
Phenoxyethanol is used as a preservative and is a toxic compound that is tested on animals.
Fighting toxicity requires awareness and perseverance. Kelley offers these suggestions on how to get the best results:
* Drink lots of water to flush the system; six, eight-ounce glasses a day of purified water. Distilled is not necessarily good, because over long periods, it will pull out the toxins and the good nutrients;
* Buy (or put) your water in glass containers, because when plastic gets hot, it gives off gases.
* Make sure you consume food that is as preservative free as possible. Fresh is best advises, Kelley, and frozen is next. She suggests staying away from canned food as much as possible because of the high level of preservatives. More exercise increases the metabolism of the cells which helps them release waste faster.
* Make sure you have good bowel habits--one to two complete bowel movements per day.
* Get the proper amount of sleep to also help rejuvenate the body. You need at least six hours a night of deep sleep.
Those people who live in rental housing and are not satisfied with their landlord's response to a potential toxic living condition, can call the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Housing Inspection at (626) 430-5200. Residents of Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon, should call the public health departments in those respective cities.
Whatever you do, vigilance and knowledge will be the critical ingredients that help make your life more toxin free.