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A Mexican City Awakes to an Ecological Nightmare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1981, university researchers tested for lead in the blood of Maria del Pilar’s 3-year-old daughter, Julieta, and other children living in the shadow of the huge metal smelter in this northern desert city. Julieta measured a worrisome 34 micrograms of lead per deciliter, her mother recalled, but nobody paid much attention.

Last month, researchers reexamined Julieta, now 22. The level of lead in her blood was found to have nearly doubled, approaching levels that can cause kidney and brain damage.

She has lived next to the Met-Mex Penoles smelting factory all her life and can’t read or write. Her mother is convinced that Julieta’s learning disabilities are a result of chronic lead exposure.

“Imagine what it means to hear your child is poisoned with lead. And they say we are alarmists!” exclaimed Del Pilar, for whom the news got even worse: Tests on her two granddaughters showed lead levels so high that both were immediately hospitalized.

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Mexican children are now paying the price for their nation’s tardiness in adopting strict industrial pollution controls, long after many countries clamped down on lead and other emissions.

The new disclosures suggest that decades of lead poisoning in Torreon have quietly created one of Mexico’s worst ecological nightmares.

The vast majority of 2,850 children tested by state health authorities so far this year--2,535--exceeded 10 micrograms per deciliter, what the U.S. considers the healthy limit. (The U.S. average blood lead level for small children is 2.7 micrograms.)

Of those, 1,337 are above 25 micrograms, and 525 of them were tested at between 40 and 69 micrograms--a level at which the risks of damage to the kidneys and nervous system grow. Nine children have been hospitalized.

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Lead can be removed from the body once exposure stops, but the key is whether permanent damage has already been done. That is the risk in long-term exposure.

Finally, authorities have been galvanized into action.

Officials this month ordered the Penoles factory, the world’s No. 1 silver producer and fourth-largest lead smelter, to buy up and flatten an entire neighborhood of nearly 400 homes and pay for victims’ health care.

Although the soil around the Penoles plant is already contaminated after nearly a century of emissions--and the company says it is now in compliance with Mexican regulations--health authorities are suggesting they may shut the factory down while its emissions are tested. A shutdown would be a serious action for the community: The factory is by far the largest employer in town.

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Environmentalists hope the current flurry of government orders and company actions may ultimately become a model of effective environmental monitoring to counter a century of carelessness and neglect.

Warning Signs Go Back 20 Years

But nobody can explain why, after so many warning signs, nothing was done until now. The 1981 study wasn’t the first.

And Lilia Albert remembers vividly the tests she carried out in 1976 on the hair of children living near the Met-Mex Penoles smelting plant. Lead in hair strands is an indicator of chronic exposure.

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“The levels of lead in the children’s hair [were] much, much higher than in the other four cities we studied,” recalled Albert, who first published her findings in 1978 and later became a top environmental toxicologist. “But no one paid much notice--then or later.”

The factory, meanwhile, grew into a world leader in nonferrous metals output, with state-of-the-art technology and international quality standards. Employing more than 2,000 people at its immense site in this desert town 300 miles south of the Texas border, Penoles became a symbol of the growth that could propel Mexico into the ranks of modern industrial nations.

Built up by Americans, Penoles was bought by Mexican investors in 1961 and is controlled by one of Mexico’s richest men, Alberto Bailleres.

As the city of Torreon grew along with the plant, its residential areas filled what once was a mile of open space between the central square and the huge smelting plant. City officials allowed a new barrio for the poor, named Luis Echeverria in honor of the nationalistic 1970s president, to push right up against the factory wall.

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It was after door-to-door testing in Luis Echeverria that the state and federal governments intervened on May 5. They ordered the company to reduce output by 25% pending further emissions tests, to pay for victims’ health care and to buy up 394 houses in the most contaminated 20 blocks.

All the houses will be razed, the lead-filled soil will be dug out and the 12.5-acre area will become a greenbelt between the factory and the city.

For its part, the company is scrambling to repair its image and its relations with the community, including holding a march by employees in defense of Penoles. The firm is explaining that it has made $154 million worth of pollution-control investments in recent years, among the most costly in the country. It says that the health damage occurring now is the price of decades of ignorance about the hazards of metal contamination.

Penoles, which had sales of $771 million last year, will spend about $36 million for the cleanup.

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“This is the most serious [lead contamination] case in Mexico by far,” said Antonio Arzuela, the national environmental prosecutor. “I believe the company should have made an effort sooner to test the health of the population around its plant. This is not a new issue.

“But I hope this will become a model,” he added. “If we manage to get the firm to live together in harmony with the community, this will be a model to show it can be done in Mexico.”

Even the sharpest critics acknowledge that one of the main obstacles to discovering the extent of the lead intoxication was the slow, invisible course it took. The lead soaked into the ground over decades as ore dust floated from the plant; it wasn’t a sudden, acute case of lead poisoning.

Finally, beginning last June, studies by independent researchers started the series of events that led to action.

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Pediatrician Manuel Velasco began noticing a pattern to cases of lead contamination in Torreon’s children. The first case was a 1-year-old patient with lead of 45 micrograms. By November, Velasco had found 33 cases. He reported them to state health officials, “but the health ministry failed; it didn’t do its job. So we brought a complaint to the state congress.”

At the same time, Dr. Alonso Garcia Vargas, a professor at the University of Juarez in Durango state and a respected toxicologist, was pressing ahead with the most extensive study of lead levels in children living close to the plant. His two-year study was published in November.

Of 394 children Vargas tested at schools near the plant, 98 had blood levels above 25 micrograms per deciliter, including 10 with signs of lead poisoning.

Most U.S. agencies define levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter as lead poisoning; others say 30 micrograms per deciliter is the real danger point, where loss of intelligence and neurological trauma are clearly documented.

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The combined impact of Velasco’s hands-on pediatric findings and Garcia Vargas’ persuasive academic work achieved a political critical mass. The Couahila state congress in February ordered urgent tests of children’s lead levels around the plant, and those findings triggered the state and federal crackdown this month.

Nor is lead the only problem. In April, a Dartmouth University study found levels of cadmium in the dust near the plant that “exceeds any previously reported level.” Cadmium is a known carcinogen.

Garcia Vargas, whose pivotal study finally lifted the curtain on the contamination, downplays conspiracy theories in assessing why it took so many years to address the problem.

“In the United States, this consciousness emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s,” he said. “Now it is starting here. In the 1980s we had no strict norms. This created many vacuums. . . . When solid results did emerge, the authorities did react.”

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But a major barrier remains the lack of resources available for independent research, he said, leaving companies responsible for policing themselves. Penoles did cooperate with his detailed study, he noted. “Perhaps they wanted to buy a bit of time, but they never denied [the problem] existed.”

Indeed, Penoles Chief Executive Manuel Luevanos said, “We are paying for old sins here, and not just sins of the firm itself but from other sources that once caused pollution.”

Lead contamination around metal smelting and refining plants has long been a well-documented environmental problem, with infamous cases of lead poisoning among children near such plants reported in El Paso; Kosovo, Yugoslavia; and Trail, Canada. With similar reported levels of lead in the blood, Torreon will join their ranks.

Meanwhile, post-mortems are underway here. Critics such as Francisco Valdes, a Torreon doctor and university professor who has emerged as a leading environmental spokesman, is as angry about government inaction as he is about the company’s handling of the matter.

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“The attitude was that anything to do with growth was good,” he said. “And anyone who raised objections was said to be an obstacle to growth.”

Arzuela, the environmental prosecutor, noted that before his enforcement agency was created in 1992, industries largely policed themselves. Only in the 1990s, he said, has the government begun intervening directly.

‘95 Audit Resulted in Corrective Measures

In 1995, Penoles undertook a major environmental audit in conjunction with the enforcement authority and agreed on a program of 113 corrective measures. More than half those tasks are done.

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Camilo Valdez, environmental manager for the plant, told a worried Torreon business leaders at a breakfast meeting last week that Penoles is now going beyond the factory walls to attack the lead threat. That includes paving the outdoor areas of three nearby schools, which had been dangerous receptacles for lead and other metals.

The company is also sending a fleet of street sweepers beyond its grounds each day to clean the adjacent barrio’s lanes. Soon work crews will scrub the sidewalks as well. Nurses are teaching families the importance of good hygiene to prevent lead ingestion.

The football-stadium-sized black mountain in the center of the plant, a slag-heap legacy of a century of lead production, is apparently more an eyesore than a dangerous pollution source.

Company officials say the “cerro negro,” visible from much of Torreon, is stable and not a source of lead dust. Neither are the tall red-and-white smokestacks, which in fact reflect huge investments in filtration and catalytic converters to prevent dangerous sulfur dioxide gases from pouring into the skies as they used to.

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The real threat comes from piles of ore concentrates dumped in a broad trench just inside the factory wall by the scores of trucks that arrive from surrounding mines each day. There, the dust is subject to breezes that blow it toward Luis Echeverria and the town beyond.

The company said it is automating these operations and building a 5-acre shed over the concentrates storage area to stop dust from escaping.

But on the other side of the fence, in Luis Echeverria, Raquel Guillen is certain that the lead has already done its damage. A special education teacher, Guillen said the ailments are plain to see: “It’s obvious when you walk the streets, you see it in the people’s physiques and faces.”


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