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News In Numbers: Auto Body Fumes A Frequent Complaint In San Diego County

Lemon Grove Truck Body & Equipment is one of several body shops at 8373 and 8377 Broadway. The addresses have received more air complaints than any other auto paint operations in recent years, July 21, 2016.
Ingrid Lobet / inewsource
Lemon Grove Truck Body & Equipment is one of several body shops at 8373 and 8377 Broadway. The addresses have received more air complaints than any other auto paint operations in recent years, July 21, 2016.

News In Numbers: Auto Body Fumes A Frequent Complaint In San Diego County
News In Numbers: Auto Body Fumes A Frequent Complaint In San Diego County GUEST:Ingrid Lobet, reporter, inewsource

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The paints that give cars their sparkle and luster are less toxic than they used to be. It something of a surprise that complaints about auto body shops outnumber any type of air complete May 2 authorities. Ingrid Lobet of our partner has our latest news in numbers. The complaints come from Chula Vista residents report some auto shops really strong fumes that cause breathing problems and headaches and sickened children. Just outside Lemon Grove Aaron -- Eric Drayner says the one on the other side of his wall has disturbed them for years. I can see them. I can see them painting outside. It's illegal. No address received more complaints about operations than the one the borders his properties. The County has issued 10 violations since 2013. We gave up complaining it doesn't help. I'm leaving when I can retire. I value my property. Inewssource valued -- measured the complaints. More than 10% related to autobody. That's been a big concern. Joint Williams -- Joy Williams. It's been a big part of what we've heard. Autobody shops comply with rules set of the environmental protection agency. The district refused to request an interview. In an interview the agency said they respond to complaints and the County exempts small shops from having an enclosed spray booth and it decides case-by-case weather shops have to filter their air. That might not be legal according to Allison Davis Senior advisor for public affairs in the EPA's office. Under the clean air act authorities may establish standards that are more stringent, they cannot establish less stringent standards. Asked how, the county says it doesn't track that. The California autobody Association which represents the businesses says face with the complaint most shops will try to prevent the problem. It urges any resident with the problem to contact the California Bureau of automotive repair. David Winkowski's director in San Diego. It's a residential area and we see that they are painting a car and they do it quite frequently and it's outside, at that point you know that's not right they should have the paint booth. It should be filtered and the harmful for the residence around them. In Chula Vista Tomasson Maria Hughes have endured just such an operation painting cars behind a tarp home from their neighbors carport. One time he had nine carcasses and he was burning them with the torch. They've got a tow truck now in the bring stuff in. Eva Sanchez claims her sons activities are nothing more than a pastime. He loves to do mechanics, sometimes my other son comes, my brother-in-law. If a place takes money for repairs rules say it must be regulated. Maria Hughes say she and her husband of called repeatedly but nothing has changed. [ spoken in spanish ] we've worked into old age to be able to rest in our home. We can't even go outside. What good is it. I'm Ingrid Lobet. Joining me now is Ingrid Lobet. One question that came to mind is about zoning. How is it that there are residential properties right next to autobody shops, I would've thought the autobody shops would be zoned in an industrial area. In a perfect world. Auto repair is not allowed in residential zoned areas in San Diego, the two people we just heard in the story, one is an unincorporated and the other is in Chula Vista. We have 18 cities in the county there are a lot of different zoning rules. What are the standard requirements for an autobody shop to reduce toxic fumes? They are required to be licensed and if they generate significant emission their required to have a spray booth and some spray booths are required to have a filtration system on their exhaust. Their required to wash out tools in a controlled manner so they are just spraying out the tools with solvent. They have to dispose of their rags carefully. They have to keep a lot of records related to their pollution and if they generate hazardous waste there are other rules. You didn't get from what we heard a great deal of response from the air pollution control district. Is it right, did they say they didn't know how many exemptions they've made so that shops don't have to use the booth to paint a car? The district did answer my questions in writing. Robert Carter said he wasn't going to provide anyone for an interview. Correct. They wrote they do not check that. You mentioned in your story, the county practice of exempting some of these autobody shops from having these enclosed spray booths may be legal, because it's not following EPA rules. Is anyone looking into that? I guess the EPA will decide if they want to follow up. I'd merely ran our local policy by them in the course of the conversation and they will be back and said no, you are not allowed to make those exemptions. I don't know. Perhaps they will follow up. You started out saying that agents, chemicals now used in autobody work are less toxic than they were before. Can they still create health problems? They can end of someone, if you've got a business operating carelessly, you have multiple repeated complaints, I think it would be fair for that neighbor to ask if they should be concerned if they are observing the precautions with solvents. Some of the solvents can be harmful, including one which is supposed to be used in a controlled way. When you talked to the people who we heard in this report, what kinds of problems are they reporting to you, did they tell you they are experiencing or suffering from with this close proximity to those chemicals? I bought a couple of them with me. This one is from city Heights complains of painting fumes in a smell that's killing us from a nearby auto repair. Southeastern San Diego, the person complaining can see pain coming from the business during business hours and from event in the shop into the air and its coding homes and cars. I've read people that have headaches or the throat hurt's. Another thing that was surprising about your report is that the idea that if your neighbor, even if it's not making a business it's okay for your neighbor to do that. No. That's not okay. There would be zoning issues if they are taking any money for it then it's a business and it have to be operated -- within the rules. They might be a gray area, there are supposed to be rules in place whether they are zoning rules or rules related to your volume of business that should be protecting you. As we can see on the complaints there are instances where people are not protected. If someone is doing this in your neighborhood, is there anything you can do? You can call the air pollution control district, you can call an agency called the California Bureau of automotive repair which sends out inspectors just for that situation. You can also call your local zoning enforcement agency. In your report, what came over to me was the fact that you were surprised that there was this bulk of problem that had to do with autobody shops and auto paint shops, they comprised so much of the complaints that went to the air pollution control district. This seems like it has been a learning curve for you. Tell us how you got into this and how you learned about this. I'm no expert. We obtained the database of all the air complaints, any dust or smoke, fumes for any reason including barbecue stands and we analyze them according to the source of the complaint. I don't want to make this sound like an epidemic, it's not. It was one of the largest share of the complaints and more than 10% about body shops. Thank you. I've been speaking with inewssource reporter Ingrid Lobet.

In San Diego’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, a report came in – fumes from spray paint and thinner so thick the caller had problems breathing and was going to pass out.

In Spring Valley, a resident said an auto body shop was painting in a small room with no exhaust filters. Neighborhood children were getting sick.

inewsource is an independent nonprofit dedicated to providing in-depth, data-driven journalism on the web, radio and TV.

Just outside Lemon Grove, Eric Drayner said he raised objections for years about a shop on the other side of the wall in his backyard. The problem is not going away.

“We gave up complaining,” Drayner said. “It doesn’t help. I’m getting close to retirement. When I retire I’m leaving.” The civil engineer said the value of his property was diminished, and that his neighbors, aggravated and exhausted, also gave up and moved out.

From Oceanside to National City, Escondido to Chula Vista, complaints about fumes emanating from car painting operations are among the most frequent reported to air authorities. An analysis of records by inewsource shows more than 10 percent of air complaints in San Diego County cite auto and truck painting, with 224 of some 2,100 complaints made between January 2013 and April 2016.

The Environmental Health Coalition, one of nation’s oldest groups devoted to urban environmental health, has long worked in National City. Research Director Joy Williams said the issue is “a big part of what we have heard from residents.”

Some of the shops receiving complaints are well-established. Others are makeshift spray booths.


The county Air Pollution Control District has primary jurisdiction over air quality issues in the region. The district’s Robert Kard refused requests for an interview. In an email he said inspectors routinely canvas neighborhoods for unpermitted businesses of any kind and also respond to complaints in a timely manner. Any time they visit an auto paint shop, Kard wrote, they look at the coatings to make sure only modern, waterborne products are used.

Several people interviewed spoke of positive change in the industry as it has moved away from solvent-based paints.

Changes are also a result of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that went into effect in 2010 and 2011 because “these shops can emit a type of pollution called air toxics or hazardous air pollutants,” said Alison Davis, a senior adviser for public affairs in the agency’s air office. The rules defined a shop as anyone taking money for painting cars or painting more than two vehicles a year. It required enclosed spray booths and controls on how workers clean their tools to reduce the release of solvents.

But chemicals that people ought not be exposed to are still used in auto body work. Common solvents are xylene, acetone, alcohol, and sometimes NMP, said Charles Corcoran, supervisory environmental scientist at the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. NMP, or N-methyl-pyrrolidone, is considered a reproductive hazard by the California Department of Public Health, meaning it may be dangerous for babies in utero. Acetone can cause dizziness and irritate the nose, throat, lungs and eyes. Both xylene and NMP have limits on their use in San Diego County, the district wrote.

The district also exempts some small shops from the federal requirement for an enclosed spray booth, it said in an email. On a case-by-case basis it decides whether exhaust air must be filtered. Environmental Protection Agency rules require spray booths to have filtration systems that are 98 percent efficient. The district’s practice may be illegal.

“A local government or jurisdiction is not allowed to make exemptions for auto body shops,” Enesta Jones of the EPA wrote. “The federal rule reflects the minimum acceptable standards for auto body shops in the United States.”

No address in San Diego County received more vehicle painting complaints in the last three years than the one behind Drayner’s home on Broadway in Lemon Grove, with more than 60.

“One, two times someone has come out here,” he said of the air authorities. “‘Gee, we don’t smell anything now. We’ll take some samples.’ Well, of course not, you came out here the next day. They’re not real responsive.”

The Air Pollution Control District provided records showing it has issued 10 violations at the address since 2013, carrying fines totaling $2,650. Those fines were all issued to Lemon Grove Truck Body & Equipment, one of several body shop businesses operating at 8373 Broadway. Air authorities say two of the violations are recent, from 2016, so fines haven’t been assessed yet.

One of the owners of Lemon Grove Truck Body, Omar Zamora, said he believes some of the complaints are wrongly attributed to his businesses.

“We try to keep the noise and smells down, but there’s only so much we can do,” he said, noting apartments just a few feet away.

Lemon Grove Truck Body is the subject of dozens of complaints about fumes, but Omar Zamora, an owner, says some may improperly identify his business. "There's like six shops here," he said. July 21, 2016.
Ingrid Lobet / inewsource
Lemon Grove Truck Body is the subject of dozens of complaints about fumes, but Omar Zamora, an owner, says some may improperly identify his business. "There's like six shops here," he said. July 21, 2016.

David McClune, executive director of the California Autobody Association, said most businesses try to prevent or remedy any disturbance to neighbors. He urged anyone who suspects an unlicensed operation to contact the California Bureau of Automotive Repair. The bureau also dispatches inspectors to consumers’ homes or workplaces when a repair may have been done incorrectly.

David Winkowski, a program supervisor in the San Diego office, said the complaint may be that someone is painting out in the open in a residential neighborhood. “I will send a rep out to let them know the area is not zoned for auto body repairs and they need to take it out of there,” he said.

Maria and Thomas Hughes in Chula Vista say that is the situation they have endured for years – a neighbor sanding and painting multiple vehicles on the front patio. Their street is residential. Thomas Hughes said at one time nine Volkswagens were in the front yard. “Now they’ve got a tow truck over there.”

“We got old working so that we could rest a little at home,” Maria Hughes said in Spanish. “But we can’t even go outside, so what good is it?” She said various authorities including the city of Chula Vista have observed the activity but done nothing.

The owner of the property on Emerson Street, Eva Sanchez, denied that family members do body work on other people’s cars for pay.

“There is no business here,” Sanchez said, identifying four of seven cars as belonging to relatives. Her son, her son-in-law and her brother-in-law, she said, simply “like to work on cars.”