Fighting for Their Lives
By Alex Distefano
It has been over a year, since a group of residents in the Riverside County town of Wildomar have voiced their frustration, fear and concern over contaminants in their homes they claim is affecting their health. But, last week, several state agencies finally conducted further tests at the 61-home Autumnwood housing tract, in an area just off the 15 freeway, on Palomar Street. The homes in the neighborhood are also near several churches and Wildomar Elementary School.
The Weekly spoke to a former resident of this area of Wildomar, Xonia Villanueva, who said that because of unknown contaminants coming from their home, the family had to leave, out of health and safety concerns; they fear that an unknown contaminant either in the air, soil or even ground water are making people severely sick to this day.
“During that time, we all got sicker and sicker,” she said. “My daughters, husband and I, all began to get bad colds and flu we could not fight off. We had lung lining infections and long lasting bouts of a nasty strain of pneumonia where your lungs are full of inflammation. She said that the symptoms escalated and would not go away. “My young daughter had trouble breathing at one point; we all got rashes, chronic nose bleeds, swollen lymph nodes, bronchitis, and I got sleep apnea, headaches, and my daughters also suffered gastrointestinal problems. The list goes on and on.”
Villanueva said that it all began just after her family moved to Wildomar’s Autumnwood, in 2006. She said back then, no connection was made to the sickness at first. But then something happened. “We discovered a problem in our home after cleaning out our kitchen island, I thought maybe it was mold, because after this I noticed I started to get lung problems,” she said. “We finally got the developer to come out and investigate, and they told us they would have to fix everyone else’s home—I think they saw the bigger problem.”
Villanueva said that she realized that her neighbors were at the time also dealing with similar health problems, and two women in their 30s both died of pneumonia, which was reported by the Press Enterprise and local news website Patch.
Villanueva said that the group of neighbors had to eventually file a group lawsuit against the developer, when nothing was being done, and it has been a tremendously painful, uphill battle that has gone on for several years. The health problems were so intense, according to Villanueva, that in June 2012, the family had to move out. “My family could not take it, we weren’t able to eat or sleep. We couldn’t take it anymore; we left because we detected an unknown chemical odor throughout the house.” She said that since then, she, along with other neighbors in the area, began making calls, and reporting their complaints and concerns to the city and various agencies.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is run by The California Environmental Protection Agency, had workers collect samples of groundwater, soil and underground gas from various locations in the Autumnwood neighborhood. Earlier this year, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) took test samples in the area, and said the results showed an insignificant level of contaminants, that would not affect the health of residents.
But Villanueva said that most residents don’t trust these results. She said that the group of neighbors hired independent contractors to also test for various contaminants. “We hired someone to test for mold in January, 2010,” she said. “There was this one test by the developer that was inconclusive it showed a small number of mold spores, but they told us it wasn’t enough to make us sick.” She said that they brought an Industrial Hygienist to test, and in terms of mold, the results were inconclusive. But, another contaminant was discovered. “They told us we could go back but we refused, and after more tests they found Volatile Organic Compounds, (VOCs) were present in our home, outside and indoors. It could be the soil or ground water, which was not tested. These chemicals do not belong in someone’s home.”
Villanueva said shortly after this discovery, more families reported similar symptoms, and some members of the community went to the city. “They told us eventually they couldn’t do anything because of legal reasons,” she said. “We had to get the help of Penny Newman, from a non-profit organization called the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. She has helped us immensely guiding us through this all, and making sure our voices have been and will continue to be heard. The agencies we’ve all sought to help us have been evasive.”
She mentioned that families are still sick and new families are moving into the area, and they also fall to the symptoms that plague residents and former residents. Despite it all, she said that throughout this entire frustrating ordeal she just wants the truth to be known, and getting these tests to be conducted is a step in the right direction.
“It’s been very frustrating dealing with these agencies for all this time, they have done nothing but try to cover this up,” she said. “The last count we had over 30 homes that reported illnesses over a dozen homes that have been independently tested and each one of them had contaminants.”
The fight is not over, and Villanueva said that the group of residents will not go away and will be eagerly awaiting results from the current tests, which will be available in Dec. “Something is there we know it for a fact we just have to wait for the test results to get back,” Villanueva told the Weekly. “This is such an injustice for our community. We cannot go on doing nothing about it anymore. This isn’t a case where moving out makes you better, many of us who moved are still very sick, and this is not right. Depending on the tests results, we will take this higher—to the EPA if we have to.”