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Environment : A River of Doubt : The Rio Grande’s pollution is part of the debate over NAFTA.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than two years, expectant mothers in this community where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico have worried that their babies will be born missing part of their brains or spinal cords.

Such birth defects are occurring here at three times the national rate. And no one knows why.

The most ominous explanation, however, is proposed by a lawsuit making its way through Texas courts. Nineteen families are blaming their children’s deaths and disabilities on pollution from U.S.-owned factories across the river in Matamoros, Mexico. A total of 126 cases of defects and disabilities were found in babies here from 1980 to 1992. As a result, the Rio Grande Valley has become the worst-case scenario for what closer economic ties between the United States and Mexico could mean. It is a poignant reminder of the dangers as the U.S. Congress considers whether to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would eliminate trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Despite a side deal meant to ensure that Mexico will enforce its antipollution laws, environmentalists worry that industry will flee across the border to avoid the expense of complying with U.S. regulations. The birth defects in Brownsville, they warn, could be early symptoms of what such pollution would bring.

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The warning is graphic. Many of the newborns have frog-like eyes or misshapen heads. The effect on families is devastating.

“Sometimes I cry a lot,” says Luz Perez, sobbing softly while she talks about the birth and death of her third child, Angel Alberto, a year ago.

Now 24, Perez had quit her job as a Kmart checker to become a full-time mother of two after her 3-year-old was born. When she found out she was pregnant again, the most severe complication she and her deliveryman husband, Armando, expected was twins. “There are lots on both sides of the family,” she explained. But nearly seven months into the pregnancy, a sonogram showed that most of her baby’s brain was missing. Doctors said he would not live and that continuing the pregnancy could be dangerous for her. After two days of agonizing, Perez told her doctors to induce early labor, knowing the child would be stillborn.

“He was such a big baby,” Perez says as she recalls holding the lifeless body in her arms while Armando took snapshots, their only remembrance of the son they lost. “It was hard to believe. I never expected this.”

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She told her 8-year-old daughter that Jesus decided to keep the baby. But finding an explanation for herself and her husband has been more difficult. Without an explanation, they are afraid to try to have another child.

All doctors can tell them is that such defects occur in the first month of pregnancy and appear to be related to a deficiency of a vitamin called folic acid. The defect can occur anywhere along the spine up to the brain.

If part of the brain is missing, children live at most a few weeks. Children with spinal defects have handicaps that can range from severe paralysis to difficulty in walking.

To avoid the deficiency, public health officials encourage women of childbearing age to take folic acid supplements, which Perez is doing. But that does not explain why the deficiency is occurring.

That reason remains a mystery, although community activists believe there is a clue in a Finnish study, which found that some chemicals, particularly toluene and xylene, may interfere with the body’s ability to absorb folic acid.

The lawsuit filed by the 19 families claims that two dozen chemicals connected with brain and spinal disabilities are used by U.S. companies in Matamoros. The companies have handled those m1635018098543451506olluting the area.

“The industry in Matamoros is mostly clean industry,” he said. He said the association carefully polices its members and insists on full compliance with Mexico’s antipollution laws, which are becoming increasingly strict. Still, Ema Mendez and her neighbors in the section of Matamoros known as Uniones have complained for years about odors and leaks from U.S.-owned factories near their homes. “There are times when the leaks make me sick to my stomach,” she said.

Quintana dismisses such accusations. “Besides, most of the people around those factories are squatters on federal land,” he added. “They should not be there anyway.”

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Mendez has been hearing those answers for a long time, and they make her angry. “Does being a squatter make people less human?” she asks.

Mendez’s own family has a history of birth defects that she blames on U.S. companies. Nearly two decades ago, a cousin who worked in a now-defunct battery plant joined co-workers in a successful suit against the U.S. owners, contending that the workers were forced to use chemicals during pregnancy that damaged their unborn children.

Mendez’s year-old nephew is recovering from surgery for a heart problem that doctors say could be the result of his mother’s exposure to chemicals in the environment during pregnancy. (No Mexican families are involved in the current lawsuit.)

“They have sent us all the polluting companies that no one else wants,” Mendez contends.

Now, there are growing fears that pollution may be making its way back across the border.

“The river is just a river,” according to Tony Martinez, 47, the attorney who is representing the 19 families.

“The air is our air, and the water is our water,” he explains. “We have to take care of both of us.”

That sense of cross-border community is strong here. Government officials and community activists speak about working with their counterparts in neighboring Matamoros as naturally as they talk about cooperating with colleagues in nearby McAllen, Tex. People of all ethnic backgrounds slip from English into Spanish and back, often in the same sentence.

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The Rio Grande Valley, in many ways, is thus a model of international cooperation. But it is also an area that because of its extreme poverty was singularly unprepared to deal with the events of April, 1991.

In one 36-hour period in a single Brownsville hospital, three women gave birth to babies with incomplete brains. Based on the national average, only two babies should have been born with that birth defect during the entire year in the whole of Cameron County, where Brownsville is located.

Alarmed, a nurse who assisted at the births began checking records. She found that the number of deliveries of babies with brain and spinal defects was climbing at the hospital.

Until then, no one had noticed because Texas does not have a birth-defects registry. State health officials notified Mexican authorities, and both sides began studying the problem, with frightening results.

In Matamoros, the rates of brain and spinal birth defects nearly quintupled from 1987 to 1992. A study released last week by Texas health authorities showed that rates in the county where Brownsville is located increased steadily among babies conceived from 1986 to 1990, then doubled for those conceived in 1991.

The rate seems to have dropped back again--although it is still high--based on babies conceived in early 1992. There was no apparent reason for the change, although several U.S. plants in Mexico have installed water-treatment plants and others have moved to border towns further west, taking 8,000 jobs with them.

Health officials remain stumped. “Getting into what is causing these high rates is frustrating,” said Dr. Leo Vella, state health department regional director for the Rio Grande Valley. “It is frustrating for the community because these are tragedies.”

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Vella cautions against jumping to conclusions about the causes of the birth defects but still sees them as a warning. “We don’t have the infrastructure to deal with NAFTA,” he said, referring to the pending trade pact. “Health care is lagging far behind” economic development.

So are education, housing and most other measures of well-being. Despite explosive growth, the number of Brownsville-area residents living below the poverty line increased from just over one-third in 1980 to 42% a decade later. More than 165,000 people live in shantytowns, without sewers, trash collection or paved streets, in conditions only marginally better than those in Matamoros.

Both sides of the river have shifted rapidly from farming to industry. In Matamoros, irrigation canals have become sewage canals, carrying wastes so potent that a whiff makes eyes water and nostrils burn.

Such images--resulting from decades of economic integration across the border--contrast starkly with the prosperous future NAFTA supporters predict once the U.S. and Mexican economies are linked.

“There has been too much development too fast, without taking into account that this region is fragile,” said Domingo Gonzalez, a Brownsville community activist. “When you have industry that brings in 50,000 jobs, things are supposed to improve, not go backward.”

As the local problem has become part of the national debate on NAFTA, community leaders watched with a mixture of vindication and bitterness.

“While this is obviously a tragedy for the families, it has helped to focus national attention on the health care needs and the infrastructure needs of the border area,” said city Commissioner Jackie Lockett. For example, the former chemistry teacher said, community leaders have been asking for a pollution study since 1981, but the U.S. government provided funding only after the birth defects became known.

Vella is not so sure the attention has helped.

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“We’ve moved away from it being a tragedy,” he said. “We have to remember that these are families that have suffered this terrible loss. We must help them cope and make sure other families do not suffer the same loss.”

Compared to other families involved in the lawsuit, Judith Anne and Manuel Guerrero count themselves lucky. Their daughter, Genevieve, is a talkative, bubbly 2-year-old who runs a bit awkwardly when she chases the ducks in their back yard.

When Genevieve was born, doctors told them that she would never walk and probably not talk. When she kicked in her crib, the doctors brushed it off as spontaneous movement.

“Those first two months were hell,” recalls Judith, 24. But the Guerreros persisted, taking Genevieve, their only child, to Corpus Christi, where her mother learned to massage her feet for therapy.

She has developed more slowly than other toddlers but keeps progressing. Potty training is next.

Judith vows: “I won’t give up on her.”


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