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A Mexican City Awakes to an Ecological Nightmare

Pollution: Decades of neglect give way to action as Torreon's children suffer an epidemic of lead poisoning.

May 20, 1999|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TORREON, Mexico — 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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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