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Lead Dust Closes Bay Area Gun Range and Kids’ Gymnastics Center

Guns spewed lead dust. Child gymnasts trained. California regulators failed to act.




The CDPH was aware for decades that workers at the Target Masters West gun range had elevated blood lead levels, yet never referred the range for inspection.
Photo by Barni Ahmed

For decades California’s health department was aware of serious problems at Target Masters West. Finally the agency intervened at the gun range — on behalf of its owner.

On March 27 a criminal investigator from California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and an inspector from Santa Clara County’s Environmental Health Department conducted a surprise inspection of the Target Masters West gun range in Milpitas. Their principal objective was to discover whether lead from the range could pose a threat to children next door at the Sweet’s Gymnastics youth training center. The inspection was triggered by information shared by this website with DTSC.

Photo by Barni Ahmed

Now our investigation has led to the revelation that lead from the gun range has contaminated the inside of the gymnastics center. The county health department closed the gymnastics facility Friday until further notice. And the sensitive process of figuring out if vulnerable children have been lead poisoned is underway.

Besides uncovering evidence of potential lead contamination at the South Bay Area site, a Capital & Main search of public records reveals that state health officials may have ignored more than two decades’ worth of warnings about the gun range and had also helped Target Masters’ owner avoid close scrutiny of his employees’ blood-lead levels.

Photo by Barni Ahmed

The investigators’ resulting report states that “the roof has obvious signs of lead dust accumulation in and around the turbine vents evidenced by gray matter and staining and supported by lead readings taken in these areas.” The DTSC report stated that the agency considers levels of lead dust greater than 1,000 parts per million as “hazardous.” (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies have more stringent standards.)

A gun range owner dismissed concerns about children attending a nearby gymnastics center as an “attack on anything to do with the firearms industry.”

Lead is a powerful neurotoxin, especially in toddlers, and can cause permanent developmental delay. Target Masters’ lead levels were almost entirely in the thousands parts per million and ranged as high as 52,000 ppm.

The DTSC took further readings at the gymnastics center’s front door and at a roll-up door. Those readings were 1,340 and 2,676 ppm, respectively. Capital & Main also engaged a third-party certified lead inspector and former DTSC official, Jeff Van Slooten, to supervise lead tests, which found even more concerning readings near Sweet’s. These included tests of soil in a drain that was 40 times above the DTSC’s general cleanup level for areas frequented by children. Sweet’s gymnastics offers classes to toddlers as young as 3.

From report of March 27 inspection.

University of California, Davis, researcher Peter Green, who specializes in urban lead contamination, said via email that, out of an abundance of caution, kids who have recently attended the gymnastics center should be tested to see if they have been exposed to lead: “Dust, including lead (Pb) dust, can travel many yards — even in a light breeze. The high-Pb dust from the nearby emissions concern me greatly.”

After Capital & Main informed Santa Clara County of the third-party test results and conveyed Green’s concerns, the county’s public health department, along with CDPH’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, took lead tests on May 1 inside the gymnastics center and gun range. On Friday evening, May 3, the county announced that it was closing both businesses effective immediately because, according to an announcement, the test results “indicate an elevated risk of lead exposure for people inside the buildings, and the County immediately took action to close the businesses to the public.”

From report of March 27 inspection.

Santa Clara County officials did not explain why it took them 38 days to address the danger to children after the March 27 inspection determined that “the gun range is not maintained or operated in a manner to minimize the possibility of a release of lead to the air, soil or surface water.” That inspection report singled out a “passive exhaust ventilation system” in which air is moved by swamp coolers and exits the roof without any kind of modern filtration system.

In an interview last week, prior to the closures, Target Masters’ owner, Bill Heskett, acknowledged that for decades his gun range lacked the type of filtration system needed to prevent lead dust from escaping the building. “There’s not much I can say about yesterday. I’m addressing the problem now,” he said. Heskett dismissed concerns about children who attend the gymnastics center as overblown, characterizing the issue as part of an ongoing “attack in California on anything to do with the firearms industry.”

*   *   *

The two agencies most responsible for ensuring that workers are not subjected to dangerous levels of lead at gun ranges and other workplaces are the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA). The CDPH has its own internal division that tracks blood-lead levels, but the department has no enforcement powers. To take remedial action, it must refer cases to Cal/OSHA, which has the authority to inspect and, if necessary, close down contaminated sites. Capital & Main’s ongoing investigation into lead contamination in California has found that CDPH rarely refers cases to Cal/OSHA.

For decades CDPH was aware of serious problems at Target Masters West. As far back as 1996 a whistleblower had raised the alarm about the range’s air-filtration system, and internal CDPH emails discussing the range show the agency was warned by a severely lead poisoned worker that “environmental pollution [is] happening as a result of improper ventilation.” Although the neighboring gymnastics center is not mentioned by name, CDPH officials discussed “getting [redacted word] kids tested.”

Contamination Expert: Kids who have recently attended the gymnastics center should be tested to see if they have been exposed to lead.

Over the years the CDPH would send more than a half dozen letters to Target Masters West, informing the gun range that another worker’s blood-lead levels had exceeded 40 micrograms per deciliter. (Readings at this level are associated with kidney, heart disease, miscarriages, depression, forgetfulness, irritability and weakness.) A 2006 letter, for example, states that a worker’s blood-lead levels indicated “serious problems with your lead safety program that should be corrected. They may also indicate violations of the Cal/OSHA lead standard.” Although the Cal/OSHA warning was underlined in the letter, CDPH never referred the range to Cal/OSHA for further action. In 2011, Target Masters again received a letter from CDPH. Heskett himself contacted CDPH and claimed that “the ventilation system was good.”

David Michaels, who was the assistant secretary at the federal OSHA from 2009 to 2017, told Capital & Main, “Reports of elevated blood lead levels should lead immediately to an inspection to ensure that the employer abates the hazard as quickly as possible, in order to prevent additional lead poisoning cases.” Michaels added that “in some cases children may be exposed, either through their presence at or near the gun range, or from lead dust being taken home on workers’ clothing.” At least 38 states follow the federal standards that Michaels helped implement, but California is not among them.

*   *   *

Eventually, in 2016, CDPH did intervene — on behalf of Bill Heskett. At the time, Veronica Perez, a staff member at a local occupational health clinic, had concerns about a patient who worked at Target Masters who repeatedly showed elevated lead levels. If, as Heskett then believed, Cal/OSHA had received a referral from the clinic, the agency would almost certainly require the type of expensive changes to the lead-spewing ventilation system that would be ordered in 2019. Heskett acknowledged to Capital & Main that he instructed the manager of the gun range to contact CDPH to try and convince the health clinic that the case did not warrant a referral.

The CDPH official who took the initial phone call from Target Masters summarized the gun range’s concern in an email: “They think [Perez] is wanting to take too stringent actions.” The issue was forwarded to the Occupational Lead Poisoning Protection Program (OLPPP), the CDPH division that monitors adult blood-lead levels. (Today Heskett claims he asked CDPH to intervene in 2016 from a personal belief that Santa Clara County was intent on dissuading young people from working at his gun range. )

The relayed message from Target Masters spawned more than a dozen internal emails within OLPPP, creating the impression of a back-channel effort to circumvent a Cal/OSHA referral. One email sent by Susan Payne, a chief case investigator for OLPPP, stated, “This issue has come up a few times. Most of the [redacted word] are satisfied once learning that OLPPP handles all things occupational…For the ones who refuse to accept this (has only happened a couple or a few times, I think) we get some kind of doc to doc discussion going.”

Perez told Capital & Main that she was called by CDPH and informed that the Target Masters employee’s elevated lead levels did not represent a “serious adult case.” Perez said that at the time of her report she was a medical assistant helping with intakes and believes that the impression she was about to refer Target Masters to Cal/OSHA was likely a misunderstanding. After speaking with Perez, CDPH’s Payne wrote that the clinic had “confirmed they have NOT made a Cal/OSHA complaint.”

CDPH declined to comment about the actions it took in 2016 at the request of Target Masters beyond to say that “CDPH cannot provide any further details” for reasons the Health Department says would “violate the privacy of an employee.” It’s unclear if CDPH is referring to one of its own employees or a worker at Target Masters West.

*   *   *

Hours before Santa Clara County’s May 3 closure announcement, CDPH responded to questions that Capital & Main posed to it weeks earlier. California’s Public Health Department is for the moment standing by a policy that experts like former Obama-administration OSHA official David Michaels say is dangerous, in part because of the impact lead can have on children near lead-contaminated workplaces. In its statement CDPH confirmed that it does “not currently refer employers to Cal/OSHA for enforcement action based solely on an employee blood lead level (BLL).”

Assemblymember Ash Kalra: “How many more people will have to succumb to the debilitating effects of lead exposure before we decide to change this failed system?”

In March, the director of the 3,000-plus employee department, Dr. Karen Smith, struck a different tone when she sat down with Capital & Main for an extensive background conversation.

Smith said that she had been studying the issues raised by Capital & Main’s investigations into lead contamination, although at the time the latest revelations with Target Masters had not yet been made. However, Smith acknowledged structural issues with the way that OLPPP shares elevated blood-lead results with Cal/OSHA.

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A California lawmaker who has been pushing to change the way that CDPH handles lead poisoning cases amongst workers says that more than vague promises are needed. “How many more people will have to succumb to the debilitating effects of lead exposure before we decide to change this failed system?” asked Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), after being briefed on Capital & Main’s findings. “Worker safety should be paramount, not just to businesses, but also to the agencies tasked with protecting these workers.” Kalra is sponsoring legislation to strengthen worksite safeguards against lead poisoning.

Shortly before his gym’s closure, Dave Sweet said he was “shocked” to learn that “all this drama has been going on next door having to do with lead-poisoned workers, while I have been kept completely in the dark. That’s just not right. What’s vital now is that this gets fixed, and fast.”

Copyright Capital & Main

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