Maywood fire evacuees face longer wait to return home

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A few dozen Maywood residents displaced by this week's huge industrial fire will have to wait at least "several days" to learn whether it's safe to return to their homes, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

An L.A. County Fire Department spokesman had previously indicated they might be able to go home by Saturday. But Public Health says it needs more time to determine if there are dangerous levels of chemicals in the air and dust in the area. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is testing indoor air samples gathered from about a dozen of the more than 20 single-family homes and several apartment buildings on the north side of E. 52nd Street between Maywood and Everett Aves., said spokeswoman Soledad Calvino. Those homes were closest to the massive industrial fire that erupted early Tuesday morning.

An L.A. County Fire Department spokesman said test results would be available late Friday night or early Saturday. But in a statement issued Thursday night, County Public Health said it will take "several days for the results and analysis to be available," adding, "those evacuated residents should remain in shelters or alternative housing until the testing and any necessary cleanup is complete."

The Red Cross set up a temporary shelter at the Maywood YMCA for those displaced by the fire. The agency said Thursday that more than 130 people were still registered at the shelter.

"If chemicals measured in homes are at levels that present an elevated health risk, then Public Health will take action to diminish any risks to the residents in accordance with state and federal health protection measures," the health agency said. It noted residents with questions can call the L.A. County 211 information line.

The EPA took samples from properties "that had either open windows or broken windows," said Calvino, adding that "indoor air sampling will also include dust sampling."

The federal agency also collected ash samples throughout the area on Wednesday, including "a parking lot, the facility perimeter and the surface of [two] residences," she wrote in an email. The samples will be analyzed for the presence of any of 22 metals, said Calvino.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District collected external air samples in the immediate vicinity of the fire. It says preliminary test results found all of the metals detected were at levels below the thresholds for adverse health effects.

The fire broke out in an industrial park that contains Gemini Film & Bag, which makes custom plastic films and bags, and Panda International Trading Co., Inc, a metal recycler. It burned for more than 30 hours and threatened a number of homes before firefighters extinguished it.

Officials say the cause is still under investigation. 

Roughly 10,000 pounds of magnesium shavings stored in barrels and bins at Panda International, which could explain how the fire grew so large. Crews initially used their hoses, but adding water to magnesium creates an explosive reaction.

Magnesium fumes can cause breathing difficulties, headaches, weakness, fever, redness and pain in the eyes, abdominal pain and diarrhea, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.