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AMA Calls for Binational Health Panel : Pollution: Report calls environmental conditions at the border squalid and the current solutions inadequate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pollution is so severe and infectious diseases so rampant along the U.S.-Mexico border that a binational commission must be created to solve the problems, according to a report by the American Medical Assn.

“Current solutions are inadequate, fragmentary and not coordinated by the two nations,” says the report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. The full AMA approved a committee recommendation to create such a commission last summer, but the report was not published until Tuesday.

Conditions are so squalid that they seriously affect health and economics on both sides of the border, the AMA said. Specifically:

* About 12 million gallons of raw sewage flow daily into the Tijuana River before it empties into the ocean off San Diego. An additional 20 million and 22 million are dumped into the New River at Mexicali and the Rio Grande in Texas, respectively.

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* The fecal count at some points in the Rio Grande is a dangerous 22,000 bacteria per milliliter.

* Hepatitis is very high among border populations. About 35% of children under age 8 in San Elizario, Tex., near El Paso, have had hepatitis A, and 85% to 90% of residents contract it by age 35, the report says.

* Rabies is a constant threat on both sides of the border. The report notes that, in Laredo, Tex., across the border from Nuevo Laredo, stray dogs bite more than 500 people a year.

The report acknowledges that there has been movement in recent years to solve such problems. This includes a historic agreement last October that will have a direct effect in the San Diego area. President Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salina de Gortari agreed then to cooperate in building a sewage plant in the United States to treat up to 25 million gallons of Tijuana sewage daily.

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The move would end pollution of the Tijuana River, which enters the Pacific on the U.S. side of the border and has contaminated beaches there for years, officials say. One 2 1/2-mile segment of beach just north of the border has been closed for more than six years.

A written agreement to make the binational construction project final may be completed as early as next week, said Bob Ybarra, a spokesman in El Paso for the International Boundary and Water Commission.

The commission, set up in 1889 to deal with boundary and water issues between the two countries, was behind construction of a $44-million sewage treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo to help alleviate Rio Grande pollution. The costs are being shared by the United States and Mexico.

It also recently oversaw $1.2 million in improvements to a Mexican sewage pumping station on the New River, which brings Mexican wastes into California at Calexico and Mexicali. In addition, the commission is moving toward a larger project to improve sewage treatment there, Ybarra said.

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However, the AMA’s scientific council notes that the water commission does not have authority to deal with other border health issues, such as rabies and malaria-causing mosquitoes, and says the problems are addressed piecemeal by states and localities.

In addition, air pollution along the border is the responsibility of yet other officials, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Mexican Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology.

The EPA’s efforts, which the AMA notes are coordinated by people who live in Mexico City and Washington rather than on the border, and the water commission’s work aren’t enough, said William C. Scott, chairman of the AMA’s Council on Scientific Affairs.

“Neither one has very effectively attacked the problems of the severe environmental deterioration that’s happening along the border,” Scott said. “The water commission does the water stuff, and the EPA does the air stuff, and neither one of them pays attention to a lot of problems that fall in between.”

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Dr. Nancy Bowen, head of maternal and child health services for San Diego County, said some of the problems cited in the AMA report are being addressed in San Diego through the county’s branch of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Assn. She noted that the county even has an office of trans-border affairs.

“There is, at a local level, communication on a lot of issues,” Bowen said. “We are working on problems. We could do more if, say, there was more funding. You run into a lot of obviously political issues you have to deal with.”

Consequently, a binational commission would be helpful for San Diego public health efforts, she said.

The AMA report notes that the idea for a binational environmental health commission has been endorsed by health officials, cities and public health associations all along the border.

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Before President Salinas’ visit to Washington last year, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) also wrote Bush advocating a border environmental health commission.

However, the Bush Administration has taken the position that a commission is unnecessary, particularly with the Administration’s establishment this spring of a border affairs unit within the State Department’s Office of Mexican Affairs.

“Our view is that satisfactory mechanisms now exist to deal with environmental and public health problems along the border and that both governments are giving high-level attention to those problems,” wrote Janet G. Mullins, assistant secretary for legislative affairs in the State Department, in a letter to Bentsen.

Irwin Rubenstein, who took the new post of coordinator for U.S.-Mexico border affairs two months ago, said that, so far, he expects the office to be involved with water issues, border crossings and trade issues.

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