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


BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — 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.

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."

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."

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.

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