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Watts environmental concerns continue to trouble residents

First part of a three-part series

Cory Alexander Haywood | 11/8/2017, 8:45 p.m.
Tim Watkins may be reaching his breaking point...

Exposure to lead can have a wide range of effects on a child’s development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive and irritable. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth and hearing loss. At high levels, lead can cause permanent brain damage and even death.

“Across the board Watts is suffering,” says Watkins, whose father Ted Watkins founded the WLCAC in 1965, just months before the Watts rebellion.

Following World War II, more than 500,000 African Americans migrated to West Coast cities in hopes of escaping racism and discrimination. However they found both in the west. For many Black Los Angeles residents who lived in Watts, their isolation in that community was evidence that racial equality remained a distant goal as they experienced housing, education, employment, and political discrimination.

These racial injustices caused Watts’ African American population to explode on August 11, 1965 in what would become the Watts Rebellion.

“Nothing has changed,” Watkins declares. “Across the board Watts is at the bottom. Our community suffers from high infant mortality, poor literacy, and chronic recidivism - all problems that we keep getting blamed for as if we’re stupid and can’t pull ourselves up by the bootstraps - but that’s a tremendous falsehood.

“Watts has been poisoned, and I believe with all of my heart that it contributes to some of the turmoil in this area.”

Watkins continued, “There are kids here [Watts] who’re diagnosed with ADHD at 3 years-old. As they matriculate in school, they start having problems reading at grade level, focusing in class, and they struggle with exams. These issues aren’t due to a lack of will from their parents. It’s the poison they’ve been exposed to. I’ll always stand by that.”

Over the decades, Jordan Downs gained a notorious reputation as one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden areas of the city, as it was one of the flashpoints of the Watts riots and also the location of violent gang warfare in the 1980s and early 90s.

In June 2014, state environmental regulators ordered Los Angeles housing officials to test the soil in the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts to determine whether lead contamination on a vacant, city-owned parcel extends onto land where more than 2,500 of the city’s poorest residents live.

Soil contaminated with lead, a poisonous metal, is of particular concern for children, who can play in the dirt, ingest the dust and be afflicted with permanent learning deficiencies and health problems.

Later in 2014, soil tests at the Jordan Downs detected acceptable levels of lead that did not require cleanup, state toxic waste regulators concluded.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) and many Public Health agencies have published what they consider to be “safe levels” of certain metals in soil based on their own research or that of other organizations.

Unfortunately, these organizations do not always agree on what is safe. For example, the San Francisco Department of Public Health asserts there is no safe level of lead retention in our body’s digestive and nervous systems.