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Novel chemical detection project among many in jeopardy
BY TALLI NAUMAN/The Herald Mexico
El Universal
Lunes 17 de octubre del 2005

In a first-ever nationwide program, Mexico is part of a cutting-edge investigation to detect the amounts of pesticide and heavy metal residues first-time mothers have in their bloodstreams. Of course, since the project is cutting-edge, the federal government does risk cutting off its nose to spite its face.

The endeavor, launched this past week, will profile populations overly exposed to unhealthy chemicals, not only in Mexico, but also in the United States and Canada. It also will identify possible critical areas of the country where higher concentrations of the substances are expected.

Results will come from blood samples of 500 18- to 30-year-old mothers: The technique of sampling individuals for chemicals they carry in their bodies is the latest rage in environmental health advocacy worldwide, partly because it provides compelling evidence to spur prevention and cleanup of contamination.

LOOKING FOR PERSISTENT POLLUTANTS Some of the heavy metal residues sought in this sampling are arsenic, lead and mercury. The other chemicals are persistent organic pollutants (POPs), so called because they accumulate in the environment and food chain, rather than dispersing and breaking down. Among them are dioxins and furans, PCB, DDT, chlordane and lindane.

Mexico has pledged to ban DDT and lindane, in action plans that place the country at the forefront of the developing world on environmental health measures. Like the other POPs, they affect the kidneys and liver. Even in small doses, they stress the nervous system of babies and children, resulting in learning disabilities, behavioral problems and reduced intelligence quotients.

The outcome of the studies, due in the spring of 2006, can help determine priorities for managing chemical streams and reducing their damaging effects in the future, basically helping to protect health and welfare.

The so-called “critical” communities targeted for testing are Córdoba, Coatzacoalcos, Salamanca, Tultitlán, and the Valle del Yaqui. Like the other places on the list — Guadalajara, Hermosillo, Mérida, Monterrey, Querétaro — they are reminders of a dark history of chemical mishandling.

Coatzacoalcos, in Veracruz, is a petrochemical processing center where almost all Mexico’s leaded gasoline was once produced. Córdoba, also in Veracruz, is the site of the infamous Anaversa chemical factory explosion that burned giant quantities of the wood preservative pentachlorophenol, used in post and pole treatment.

Tultitlán, in the state of Mexico, is remembered for Cromatos de México chrome plating pollution but also hosts many other contaminated sites. Salamanca, in Guanajuato, is chock full of industries, refineries and processing plants, which could be associated with the dioxins and DDT found in playground dirt there. The Valle del Yaqui, in Sonora, has a long and sad record of pesticide use damaging to agricultural workers.


Meanwhile, in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, artisans in the Tonalá neighborhood could well be victims of poisoning from lead used in their pottery and metal work. Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, is being checked due to pesticide use in the surrounding agricultural area, and the health effects of the Cytrar toxic waste disposal site there are also of concern.

Mérida, the capital of Yucatan, has experienced intensive DDT applications. In Nuevo Leon, Mexico’s third largest city of Monterrey is sus pected of having high levels of lead and other metals, due to its industrial character. Querétaro, capital of the state by the same name, may also havemetal problems attributable to its many factories.

The research is being conducted under the auspices of imminent experts both abroad and in Mexico, where the National Public Health Institute’s Mauricio Hernández heads the effort. It is being made possible by the World Bank and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) — that is, if Mexico doesn’t slash the CEC’s funding.

The federal governments of Mexico, the United States and Canada established the commission under a side accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The CEC’s Joint Public Advisory Committee held its annual meeting in Mexico City on Oct. 11 to contemplated its strategic plan for what it hoped would be an upcoming 5-year period. However, one of the biggest issues facing the multi-sector tri-national panel as was precisely Mexico’s recent threat to cut 60 percent of commission’s budget.

The study is just one of the important things the commission offers people in Mexico. For example, it ordered a team of international experts to produce a study resulting in recommendations earlier this year on how Mexico can protect its native corn species from being destroyed by genetically modified maize seeds. In another initiative, the commission is accepting public comments through Oct. 20 on a pioneer report about pollution’s effects specifically on children’s health, which is designed to support policy- and decision-making.

The progress being made with these contributions should persuade Mexico to support continued participation.

Talli Nauman is a founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, a project initiated with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She is the Americas Program Associate at the International Relations Center. (

© 2005 Copyright El Universal-El Universal Online



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