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PHOTOS: Immigrant mothers take action over birth defects

Immigrant mothers take action over birth defects

A year ago, the five Mexican immigrant mothers whose children suffered birth defects were shy and unquestioning. Not anymore. In less than a year, they have overcome their fears of government officials and placed this farmworker community, one of the poorest in the state, on the national stage. Federal and state investigators are looking at a grouping of birth defects that the mothers suspect could be related to a hazardous waste facility, the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi. See full story

Photography by Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times

The sun begins to rise over Kettleman City on Jan. 27, 2010. Kettleman City is one of numerous small towns throughout the United States struggling with serious health problems that residents believe stem from environmental causes. A municipality only in name, Kettleman City lies just off Interstate 5, equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco. It has no sidewalks, stop signs or streetlights, and the per capita income is about $7,300 a year.

Maria Rangel, middle, holds her granddaughter Citlaly Alvarez. In January 2009, Citlaly's sister Ashley, born with birth defects, died at age 10 months. Maria's family is among many demanding an investigation into the possible causes of a rash of birth defects in the farmworker enclave of Kettleman City.

Marcos Torres drops off his grandmother Esperanza Gutierrez at her home in Kettleman City. Esperanza, who moved to Kettleman from Mexico five years ago, has cancer. She said that many things make her lungs hurt, and she covers her mouth with a mask when she coughs. The community has long been exposed to agricultural sewage, diesel exhaust and pesticides.

Once a week, Jose Cuevas, 80, walks several blocks to a local market to buy water for drinking and cooking. Kettleman City's water system contains elevated levels of arsenic.

A view of the hazardous waste landfill near Kettleman City.

Landfill technician Joe Perico, who was born and raised in Kettleman City, prepares to unload hazardous materials at the final stabilization unit.

The final stabilization unit is where hazardous material is treated in a process that binds heavy metals so they won't leach out into the environment.

Armed with a large photo of her child Ivan, who was born with a cleft palate and other problems, Daria Hernandez attends a community forum in Kettleman City. At the forum, the California Department of Public Health announced in English and in Spanish preliminary findings of its review of birth defects in the community in 2007 and 2008 and promised to continue investigating the matter.

After being interviewed by state health investigators, Kings County resident Maura Alatorre (center, holding poster of her child Emmanuel) joins protesters rallying in front of the news media before a community forum in Kettleman City.

Kings County resident Maria Saucedo, who is among the mothers who had babies with birth defects, is interviewed by state health investigators in Kettleman City in February. The interviews marked the start of a formal state investigation into a rash of birth defects in the community, which is adjacent to a large toxic waste dump.

Melanie Estrada runs outside to play on a Sunday afternoon in Kettleman City. Her family is among many demanding an investigation into the possible causes of birth defects in the farmworker enclave.

Viridiana Franco has one of her final doctor's appointments at the Health Valley Medical Group in Lemoore before her due date. Although she is told that her fetus is healthy, she worries that her baby will be born with serious birth defects.

Ivan Rodriguez, 1, only recently began eating solid foods. Problems associated with his cleft palate made it difficult for him to eat solids sooner.

Left to right, Adamaris Saucedo, 8, Diego Chaidez, 2, Maria Saucedo, Citlaly Alvarez (baby) and Alejandro Alvarez visit the grave of Maria and Alejandro's daughter Ashley on the anniversary of her death. She was born with birth defects and died at 10 months.

Viridiana Franco and her husband, Guadalupe Chaidez, wait in a Children's Hospital Central California waiting room to talk to the surgeon who performed heart surgery on their daughter Azul, who was born Feb. 17 with tetralogy of Fallot, a group of four types of heart defects.

Viridiana Franco visits her baby Azul in the PICU for the first time after Azul underwent surgery at Children's Hospital Central California.

Viridiana Franco visits Azul in the PICU after the baby's surgery.

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