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Lead Contamination: Questions Remain in Santa Clara County Business Closures

Santa Clara County has not revealed how many of the children who attended a now-shuttered gymnastics facility have been tested for lead.




TWO MILPITAS BUSINESSES—the Target Masters West shooting range and a neighboring children’s gymnastics facility, Sweet’s Gymnastics—remain closed after they were shuttered by Santa Clara County following the discovery of lead contamination at both sites. A March 27 inspection conducted by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) found hazardous levels of lead onsite at Target Masters, while a May 1 inspection showed elevated levels of lead inside Sweet’s Gymnastics, which held classes for children as young as 3. The results of the inspection, which was prompted by a Capital & Main investigation by reporter Joe Rubin, have drawn scrutiny in the state Assembly.

The May 1 test, conducted by the California Department of Public Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch (CLPPB), revealed that the tumbling track in the gym contained lead in excess of 260 micrograms per square foot. “A floor dust lead value of 10 micrograms per square foot is too high for toddlers,” Dr. Bruce Lanphear, an expert on lead exposure, told Capital & Main. “A floor dust lead value of 260 micrograms per square foot is way too high.”

A lack of regulatory accountability may have allowed the spread of lead dust to persist, despite numerous warning signs.

On May 8, when asked about outreach to potentially impacted families—especially those with limited access to medical care—county spokesperson Marina Hinestrosa emailed a statement claiming that the county is seeking out residents who may have been exposed: “We have requested that both businesses provide information about individuals that may have been exposed to lead dust and we are contacting employees and clients of the gym directly to encourage them to consult their medical providers.” The statement also said, “Part of the County’s outreach is to ensure that children exposed at the gym are offered testing regardless of a family’s ability to pay for it.”

Despite the county’s statement about contacting the families of Sweet’s 95 gymnastics students, it has not revealed how many children have so far been tested for lead.

As far as the scope of the problem, and whether lead dust could have spread beyond the immediate vicinity, Hinestrosa wrote: “The County is currently working with the appropriate State and local enforcement agencies to ensure the hazards are investigated, assessed, and abated. Part of these efforts include further testing, which is part of the County’s ongoing investigation.”

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CAPITAL & MAIN’S INITIAL COVERAGE of this story found that the shared lack of accountability of state regulatory agencies may have allowed the spread of lead dust to persist, despite numerous warning signs. While the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) tracks cases of lead poisoning in workplaces, the agency must report incidents to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) for remedial action to be taken. In the case of Target Masters, CDPH became aware of several employees who showed elevated levels of lead, but never referred the cases to Cal/OSHA.

Legislator: “Prolonged and repeated cases of lead poisoning are entirely preventable — but the protocols in place currently do not work.”

This website also found that in 2016, gun range owner Bill Heskett had preemptively contacted CDPH to downplay lead-contamination issues at his business. When cleaning crews recently began the mandatory lead abatement process, a sign placed outside Target Masters read, “Range closed for spring cleaning by County.”

Santa Clara County did, however, refer complaints to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), prompting the agency to conduct an inspection on April 11. According to BAAQMD communications manager Kristine Roselius, “[BAAQMD] went in, spoke with the owner, reviewed the material safety data sheet for the loaded cartridge, and went on the roof and looked at the ventilation system.” Although Target Masters had been allowed to operate without a permit from BAAQMD, that may change depending on the results of the investigation. “Right now we’re evaluating this, looking into what we think the emissions are, and then determining if they need to be a permitted facility,” Roselius said.

Despite the dangerous levels of lead discovered at Target Masters West and Sweet’s Gymnastics—and the implications the situation has for indoor gun ranges across the state—the incident generated relatively little media coverage. Aside from a local CBS report that referenced Capital & Main’s investigation, and brief mentions by NBC and SF Gate, the Mercury News was the only news outlet to cover the story; like most reports of the businesses’ shutdown, the Mercury News’ coverage heavily relied on a May 3 media statement issued by the county, while adding statements from gun-range owner Bill Heskett.

Legislators, however, have responded to the lack of enforcement around employee blood lead levels that the contamination from Target Masters highlighted. On May 28, the California State Assembly voted in favor of Assembly Bill 35, a measure that would require CDPH to report any case of an employee with a blood lead level over 20 micrograms per deciliter to Cal/OSHA. “Prolonged and repeated cases of lead poisoning are entirely preventable, but the protocols in place currently do not work,” Assemblymember Ash Kalra said during the session. Kalra, one of the bill’s authors, cited the situation in Milpitas, calling CDPH’s track record on reporting cases of lead poisoning to Cal/OSHA a “lax administration of the law.”

Copyright Capital & Main

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