The Gun Range Next Door: A Public Health Failure
September 24th 2019
By Joe Rubin
Last month California’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) emailed Capital & Main with apparent good news about the May 3 closure of a Milpitas children’s gymnastics center and the neighboring gun range that had spewed lead particles throughout the building the two businesses had shared for decades. “There was only one child identified with a blood lead test result equal to or above the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reference level of five micrograms per deciliter,” wrote CDPH spokesman Matt Conens.
But the announcement that just one child showed signs of lead poisoning raises troubling questions. Why had only 61 of the 156 kids known to have visited Sweet’s Gymnastics been tested? Why had it taken state and Santa Clara County officials eight days after the businesses’ closures to finish drafting a letter to parents that merely suggested they have their children tested? (CDPH, which provides funding for Santa Clara County’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program and works closely with the county, wrote the initial draft for the letter ultimately sent to families.)
And why was the name of the gun range, Target Masters West—which had long been known to CDPH as a lead polluter—removed as the contamination’s source from the final draft of the letter? Looming above these specific points were questions about the competency of two agencies charged with protecting the public’s health—as well as possible motives for their slow response to the emergency.
Kelly Hardy, senior managing director for health and research for the non-profit public policy organization Children Now, said that CDPH and Santa Clara County should have provided some kind of immediate response and offered its own testing. “That this was allowed to happen—all those lead poisoning cases next door known to CDPH for years—is outrageous. A letter eight days after a facility was closed because it was dangerous doesn’t cut it.”
While the first batch of letters to be sent to parents was finalized eight days after closure, it’s unclear when they were all mailed. In response to questions, health officials said that the letters were sent on a “rolling basis” as their agencies tracked down parents by phone. Emails obtained by this website show that 24 days after the gym had closed, health officials were still searching for contact information for 13 families. By law all lead test results of children in California are forwarded by labs to CDPH. Both the state and Santa Clara’s public health agencies told Capital & Main that they cannot provide testing dates or results, or even confirm when letters were sent, because doing so would be a violation of privacy. It’s a claim that nationally recognized health and legal experts we spoke to strongly disputed.
James Wheaton, director of the First Amendment Project and a University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University law and journalism lecturer, attacked CDPH’s refusal to provide meaningful lead data. Wheaton said he has seen CDPH make unwarranted privacy claims in other lead contamination cases. The Department of Public Health “routinely invokes ‘privacy’ as a blanket excuse to hide the data, including data that does not in any way identify any individual. I’ve seen it with reports of child lead poisoning and adults exposed to lead in the workplace.”
The delays could have been of enormous consequence because lead has a half-life in blood of a few weeks to a month. If some or many lead tests were delayed for a month or more, the results would have been close to useless, several experts told Capital & Main. They said that at the point that the gym was closed by order of health officials, a brief window for measuring the full impact on the kids of a few weeks to a month began to close.
“The longer the time from the exposure the more time [there is] for blood lead levels to fall,” said Dr. Morri Markowitz, director of the Lead Poisoning Treatment and Prevention Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and a childhood lead poisoning expert. He added that California officials should get credit for encouraging lead testing—but the fact that officials did not offer a convenient and free testing clinic, and instead told impacted families to contact private physicians, was a “classic punt” by public health officials that may have resulted in delayed tests and lower testing participation rates in lead testing.
Although lead levels in blood fall rapidly after exposure ends, lead can remain in other parts of the body, and health problems connected to the neurotoxin can linger for a lifetime in children. Bruce Lanphear, a leading health researcher, said that with the kind of occasional exposure found at the South Bay gymnastic center, the children’s lead levels “should drop quickly—probably in a week or two.” An Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) publication that offers advice on testing for lead toxicity notes that blood lead levels “respond relatively rapidly to abrupt or intermittent changes in lead intake.” The ATSDR cautions that when blood lead tests are delayed, results can be misleading “because most lead is stored in the bone. Individuals can therefore have high body burden of lead with ‘normal’ levels in the blood.”
Dr. Markowitz said the best way to ensure accurate results would have been to test the children at the same time the gym was surveyed for lead. “The most efficient way to know what happened to the kids in my opinion would’ve been to set up onsite testing in a “cleaned room at the gym using a portable lead testing device to screen them at the time the elevated dust lead levels were found.”
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For decades CDPH was aware of lead-poisoned workers at Target Masters West, the gun range next door to Sweet’s Gymnastics, but the department never referred the range for an inspection or warned the gymnastic center nearby about the problem.
In 1996, a severely poisoned Target Masters West worker advised the agency, according to a report obtained through public records, that he was “concerned that there is environmental pollution happening as a result of the improper ventilation.”
That same year Dave Sweet opened his gymnastics academy next door to Target Masters. Sweet shared a rooftop and wall with the gun range. Twenty-three years later, lead tests conducted by another California agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), found an unfiltered ventilation system had contaminated the roof with lead so badly that visible streaking was evident, spreading lead dust into the nearby environment. (Sweet would eventually have to replace most of the gym’s equipment because cleansing it of lead proved too expensive.)
The whistleblowing worker in 1996 was far from the last warning sign ignored by CDPH. Data obtained from public records show that the range had numerous workers with concerning levels of lead every year since 1996 that were reported to CDPH. Between 2017 and 2019, when the range closed, 43 workers, according to CDPH, had elevated levels of lead. Ten workers had levels so elevated (above 25 micrograms per deciliter) that in 38 states an OSHA inspection would have been required by law.
There is no such requirement currently in California. A bill in the California legislature, Assembly Bill 35, would change that, as it mandates that CDPH refer cases like those it encountered at Target Master West for a workplace inspection by Cal/OSHA, the enforcement agency that protects workers. The bill recently passed the state Assembly and appears headed to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk.
Another opportunity for CDPH to take action at Target Masters came in August 2018, nine months before the range and gymnastic center were closed. Data analyzed by Capital & Main revealed that Target Masters had among the worst records in California when it came to workers with elevated lead levels. CDPH was presented with this information and was asked why the agency hadn’t referred the range to Cal/OSHA and to Cal EPA to make sure the gun range wasn’t contaminating nearby locations.
CDPH spokesperson Conens’ response suggested the agency had no plans to take immediate action on either front. Conens said in an email last year that the history of lead poisoning cases at the range “may not indicate non-compliance and may not result in citations.” And as for referring cases to Cal/EPA, Conens responded that CDPH “typically does not have information that demonstrates the environment outside of a workplace with lead poisoned workers is contaminated, and therefore does not routinely refer these worksites.”
For eight months following our questions, toddlers as young as 3 continued to attend Sweet’s Gymnastics. Then Capital & Main contacted a criminal investigator at DTSC to express concerns over the gun range and, specifically, its proximity to the gymnastics center. On March 30, the DTSC investigator found high levels of lead on Target Masters’ roof and at the front door of Sweet’s.
Nevertheless, CDPH and Santa Clara County officials took a month to perform testing inside the gym. For Chia-Ling Kong, a Milpitas resident and founder of South Bay Eco Citizens, an environmental justice watchdog organization, the delay in testing the gym and informing parents of the concern are unacceptable. “When they detected lead at the doorstep,” said Kong, “they should have alerted all the parents right then and started internal testing inside the gym. I mean come on, the gun range is in the same building, they found lead in the venting system. Where is the common sense that a resident would expect from a health department?”
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When, on May 1, CDPH and Santa Clara County finally performed their own testing inside Target Masters and Sweet’s, the results revealed levels of lead inside the gun range that were thousands of times above California’s permissible standards. Also, a thin level of dust covered nearly the entire interior surface of Sweet’s Gymnastics. Officials determined that lead dust 10 times above California standards had spread to Sweet’s through an inadequate ventilation system that spewed unfiltered lead dust from Target Masters’ rooftop. Sweet says he routinely left doors open in his warehouse-like facility for fresh air, providing a possible route of entry for the dust.
Sweet says that he called many families after the closure and mentioned that they may want to get their children tested. Still, if the anonymous data which public health officials are refusing to release shows that many families waited a significant time before getting their kids tested, it would be further evidence that an opportunity to understand the impact on kids who frequented a lead-tainted facility was missed. CDPH spokesperson Conens did not respond to a request to explain the agency’s privacy claim.
Santa Clara County officials did provide this website with its strongly worded form letter signed on May 11. It stated that lead-contaminated dust was identified inside the gymnastics studio and that “lead exposure can harm a child’s nervous system and brain when they are still developing, making it difficult to learn, pay attention, and perform well in school.” But there was no mention of the need for timely tests or any public testing clinic, something that public health departments have done following lead concerns in cities like Los Angeles, Flint and Newark.
Instead the letter said, “If your child may have been exposed to lead they should have a blood lead test done by their medical provider, to determine if additional actions and follow-up are needed.” Officials did say they would offer unspecified assistance if families could not afford lead tests or needed help finding where they could get them.
Dr. Linda Crebbin, chief of care management for CDPH’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, provided the draft on May 3 and said in an email to the county, “We included a reference to the neighboring shooting range, which your counsel may or may not want to include in the letter.” By the time the letter was signed, mention of the range had vanished. When asked, Dr. Sarah Cody, director of Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department, did not explain why her department had removed the reference to the gun range.
Kelly Hardy said that she is troubled by the omission of any mention of the gun range. “It’s not an up-straight response,” Hardy said. “It’s not public health to me. Its very downstream, but it doesn’t equip families with basic knowledge of how this almost certainly came to pass.”
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Dr. Morri Markowitz and lead expert Bruce Lanphear have both said that given the lead testing that was performed, and given the fact that the exposure was not daily, they do not believe that any of the children who attended Sweet’s Gymnastics were severely poisoned. But Markowitz cautioned that lead exposure is cumulative and that even lower levels can still be serious. “Elevated blood lead levels early in your life can be a correlate of a drop in cognitive test scores later in your life. Half a dozen studies have shown that with as a low level as 10 micrograms per deciliter you can have [a] four to six IQ point drop. But that’s speaking about groups of kids. It’s statistical modeling and it’s very hard for me to extrapolate to an individual kid.”
The gun range is now permanently closed according to Target Masters’ website and faces possible sanctions from Cal/OSHA after the agency performed a long-awaited inspection in May. Dave Sweet says the process has been a “nightmare” but hopes to reopen in November in a facility that is unquestionably safe. This time there will be no gun range next door.
Posted with permission