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.
AT RISK GROUPS
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
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. (firstname.lastname@example.org)