Source Alert

USC Researchers Measuring Exide Lead Contamination Levels in Vernon

Tree rings show age; teeth rings could reveal lead exposure.

February 18, 2016

Contact: Zen Vuong at (213) 300-1381 or

A portion of the more than $176 million in state funds earmarked for testing and cleanup around a former Exide Technologies plant may go to research on how lead contamination affected the health of residents in a southeast Los Angeles community.

For months now, scientists at USC have been investigating the Vernon, California, environmental crisis.

Jill Johnston, director of USC’s Environmental Health Centers Outreach Program, is in the midst of a study to test lead exposure in children living near the Exide facility. The study is in progress, so results are not available yet. Nevertheless, the USC Outreach Program is immersed in a community advisory committee there, so Johnston has a pulse on Vernon’s environmental crisis.

A different kind of tooth fairy

“We are collecting shed baby teeth from children who have grown up near Exide. Teeth grow like tree rings and incorporate lead and other metals as they grow. We can analyze each layer of the tooth for lead levels, which tells us fetal and early childhood exposure. Each layer represents about two weeks of exposure, so we can get a sequence of lead exposure data from each tooth.”

Jill Johnston is an expert on environmental health and justice in disadvantaged urban and rural neighborhoods. She is an assistant professor of preventive medicine in the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Contact: (323) 442-1099 or