In Mexico, industries pollute the air, water, and soil with highly-toxic substances that cause terminal illnesses without facing any consequence. Thousands of people die due to the plot of federal, state, and municipal authorities. For instance, in the proximities of the Atoyac river, in Tlaxcala and Puebla, the mortality rate from cancer is 17.5 times higher than the national average. However, in that area, there are no doctors nor medicines: people pay the treatments and become even more miserable.
Tepetitla de Lardizábal, Tlaxcala. The myths about cancer reached the town. This is how Isabel Cano Flores remembers the first rumors which spread in Villa Alta, where she has been living since she was born 67 years ago. At that time, sick people generated suspicion and stigma until every family had at least one victim of industrial pollution.
Mrs. Chave, as the inhabitants of the town affectionately named her, intertwines her fingers before telling that in 2010 she experienced the most bitter and sad experience of that suffering: ‘My daughter contracted leukemia.’ Although at the time she did not know a lot about that medical issue, she says, now she talks confidently about the kind of cancer that Zulma suffered: chronic myeloid leukemia.
With the onset of that illness, the ordeal began. Even though in Tlaxcala the incidence of cancer outgrows the national average, in such a town governed by the PRI member Marco Antonio Mena there are no specialist physicians nor secondary and tertiary level hospitals.
Zulma and her mother were forced to travel the state in search of a hematologist, then they went to Puebla and then to Guadalajara, where the young lady finally received some specialized care. She was soon diagnosed with leukemia and moved to Mexico City.
‘I am not salaried. I started to sell everything I had.’ The money coming from the land that her parents inherited was not enough to cover travel expenses, hospitalization, medicines, and chemotherapy. That is why she resorted to loans with several usurers. Currently, in her debts, not only are there the thousands of pesos that they lent her, but also the blood bags that the hospital demanded her. Finding donors to pay off the debt is among her future plans. ‘In spite of all this struggle, she could not be saved.’
This disgraceful event happened because they live close to the Atoyac River, which is the third most polluted tributary in the country. In addition to losing her daughter, Mrs. Chave has seen her sister die due to a brain tumor and her mother being affected by a lung condition.
Her family is not the only affected. Between 2002 and 2006 in the municipalities near the Atoyac-Zahuapan basin, 25,737 people died because of cancer, according to official data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi), systematized by the organization Coordinadora por un Atoyac con Vida and professor Octavio Rosas Landa, academic of the Faculty of Economics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
The pollution of the Atoyac river is not unknown by the federal and state governments. It is indeed considered the third most polluted river in Mexico. On its banks, at the border between Tlaxcala and Puebla, there is a sweet, but putrid smell, similar to water mixed with clothes softener stagnated for weeks.
On the outskirts of the monitoring booth installed by the National Water Commission (Conagua) to supposedly measure the toxic levels of this current, the stench is so intense that it hurts the nostrils and soon becomes a constant headache.
Its passage is marked by the stench and hue: sometimes greenish, then bluish and later brown. Without any sign of life, it crosses Tlaxcala and Puebla, contaminating everything in its path: the reservoirs of clean water due to the filtering effect, the crops, and the atmosphere.
Therefore, in the industrial corridor, 1 thousand enterprises, out of the 20 thousand operating in the area, do not rely on wastewater treatment plants, or they do not work correctly. For this reason, this tributary contains at least 25 harmful substances and represents a focus of infection not only for cancer but also for hepatitis and cholera, points out the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) and the UNAM in their research Estudio sobre la protección de ríos, lagos y acuíferos desde la perspectiva de los derechos humanos (Research on rivers, lakes and aquifers protection from the perspective of human rights), dated May 2018.
The Mexican Institute of Water Technology carried out some analysis revealing a much worse scenario: the Atoyac river contains over one thousand dissolved chemical substances that, by mixing among them, produce even more toxic chemical reactions.
The joint research of the NCHR and UNAM recognizes that the waters of the Atoyac river are highly polluted with chemical components such as plasticizers, pesticides (Aldrin) and polycyclic aromatic compounds – for instance, the triphenyl and chrysene. Moreover, they are also contaminated with volatile compounds such as toluene, hexane, and hexachlorobenzene – used in the textile, pharmaceutical, and automotive industries; dyes and colorants from textile companies that turn the river into different colors and affect organisms’ photosynthesis.
Furthermore, there are records of the presence of arsenic, classified as a carcinogen, demonstrated in humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization (WHO). The exposure to this metal through the water produces, at least, cancer of the bladder, lungs, and skin.
The WHO explains that arsenic is employed as an alloying agent and for the processing of glass, pigments, textiles, paper, adhesive for metal, wood preservatives and ammunition. Among the twenty thousand industries that operate in the basin, there are petrochemical, pharmaceutical, textile, food, metal-mechanic and automotive industries, that uncontrollably discharge their wastes into the river every second.
In addition to the above, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) kept a record of water quality from 2012 to 2018. For the past year, the federal agency documented that the presence of lead worsened of over 20 points along the Atoyac basin and its tertiaries: Xochia, Zahuapa, and Atenco.
According to the Official Mexican Standard NOM-004-SSA1-2013, ‘lead may affect almost every organ and system of the organism bringing about various undesired effects, such as: disorder of hemoglobin biosynthesis and anemia; increase in blood pressure; damage to kidneys; spontaneous abortion; the nervous system disruption; damage to the brain; several kinds of cancers; decrease infertility.
The Standard also adds that ´the exposure to the compounds of lead in any of its form represents a risk for health either if ingested in food, water, dust or land contaminated with such an element or if breathed through dust and fumes released by plants, smelters, refineries, automotive vehicles, and so on.’
The Semarnat registry details the quality of water on the chemical oxygen demand. It is a parameter which measures the number of chemical substances dissolved in water bodies. In 2018, over 22 points of the basin had a very highly-contaminated quality of water, and no place has an acceptable chemical oxygen demand.
Four hundred medium and big-sized enterprises are the main responsible for such a situation. They represent the plants which most waste natural resources, consume more water and generate more pollution, points out Professor Octavio Rosas Landa, who has carried out independent researches based on information from the National Statistical Directory of Economic Units (Inegi) in conjunction with other researchers.
The deaths from industrial pollution
All the diseases scientifically associated with the toxic substances discharged by industrial plants into the Atoyac river or released into the environment through their massive chimneys have affected the local population. Thousands of them have died for this reason, because there everything is contaminated: the air, the water, the soil and, hence, plant and animal edibles as well.
In 2017, in that area, 2,335 people died from different kinds of cancer. This equals to 13.5 times more than the national mortality rate from this same disease, researcher Rosas Landa points out during an interview.
The researcher on water pollution and its relationship with terminal illnesses adds that the chemical substances discharged by the 20,400 plants situated in the corridor of the Atoyac river transform the primary source of water of the inhabitants of Puebla and Tlaxcala into the culprit of their deaths.
Based on the data provided by the Inegi, the research that the organization Coordinadora por una Atoyac con Vida along with the academic Rosas Landa carried out shows that at the national level 1 million 64 thousand 572 people died from cancer between 2002 and 2016. Moreover, it sheds light to the fact that while in the country 0.54 people die per square kilometer, in the municipalities of Puebla and Tlaxcala – which are in direct contact with the river – 7.35 people per square kilometer die.
The figures are increasing, says the economist and geographer Rosas Landa: ‘In 2002, 1 thousand 400 people died from cancer in this area; by 2016, the deadly rate increased to 2 thousand 114 people. In 2017, the situation got worse: 2 thousand 335 people died from the pollution of a relatively small basin, that measures 3,600 square kilometers.’
The most affected areas are those near the Atoyac basin and in particular those close to the Quetzalcóatl industrial corridor, where the discharge from industries arrive. The affected municipalities are San Martín Texmelucan and Huejotzingo, in Puebla, and Tepetitla de Lardizábal and Nativitas, in Tlaxcala.
In the community of Villa Alta, belonging to the municipality of Tepetitla de Lardizábal, the deadly rates outgrow the national average between 9 and 23 times, warns researcher Octavio Rosas.
In those areas, leukemias, renal insufficiency, spontaneous abortion, immune thrombocytopenic purpura, congenital malformations, anemias, and breathing problems turned into common illnesses.
‘Every four hours one person dies due to the contamination generated by the Atoyac river,’ declares to Contralínea Alejandra Méndez – coordinator of the center Centro Fray Julián Garcés and of the organization Coordinadora por una Atoyac con Vida.
‘It is not something that we have quantified directly. Those are official data that may even be underestimated as it depends on how the death was registered’, points out during the interview Dr. Omar Arellano Aguilar, an expert in the evaluation of ecological harm of the Faculty of Sciences and who participated in the research.
The cost of diseases
Zulma’s death represents for Mrs. Chave a lesson of the price that they paid to live close to an industrial corridor: ‘They say [her physicians] that it happened through the inhalation of toxic substances, but she has never worked in factories.’ Trying to save her daughter’s life has destroyed her, including her belongings. Indeed, she now lives at her sister’s.
Despite the high incidence of terminal diseases, in this area, the rights to live, to health, to social security and to a safe environment – enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – are violated continuously. For this reason, the inhabitants have sued the Mexican State before the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights to seek justice.
Here in Villa Alta, every family has at least a tragic history marked by death or disease, and by the increase in poverty associated with these unfortunate events: when social security is not granted, people sell the little they have and contract debts to save their relatives.
Throughout the snaked streets that characterize this town, it is ordinary to see funeral corteges passing by. Sometimes even three times per day. ‘We have two pantheons, and both are full as there are a lot of deaths. This is our reality.’, tells Mrs. Chave.
‘If we go to the next street, there is a person with palsy. Farther, there is a lady with throat cancer. One street down, a lady died from renal distress. In a family, even the father died from leukemia, the mother from breast cancer and the brother from liver cancer’, she assures.
Zulma, Mrs. Chave’s daughter, died on July 25, 2011. That same month, two of her friends died as well. ‘My daughter was 36; her friends were the same age. One died from cervical cancer, the other from lung cancer. That same month they buried three young people from our town’.
From 2002 to 2016, women represented 54% of deaths from cancer in this area, reveal the data systematized by the organization la Coordinadora por una Atoyac con Vida. The majority of them died from cervical or breast cancer.
Samuel Rosado, an economist at the UNAM and who took part in the research of the Centro Fray Julián Garcés, observes that ‘breast and ovarian cancer are those most linked to industrial pollution. The chance to get these kinds of cancers increases between 24 and 35 percent when living less than 1 kilometer far from a large manufacturer plant’. Furthermore, in the municipalities close to the Atoyac river, women, besides getting cancers, also suffer from spontaneous abortion.
‘This is not the kind of death one wishes for. We have the right to life and to a safe environment’, comments Crescencia Cano Flores, Mrs. Chave’s sister, who is observing how her third sister’s life is deteriorating because of brain cancer.
Reunited at Mrs. Crescencia’s to tell the stories of their relatives ill or dead, the inhabitants of nearby villages comment to Contralínea that it is increasingly more common to hear in the town that someone got brain cancer. Everyone claims that they are suffering terrible pain at their head principally in the mornings when the pollutant emissions from industries increase.
The high death rates due to terminal diseases scientifically associated with toxic industrial substances, which far outnumber the national average, have not been enough to encourage authorities to stop industrial pollution, nor to look after the thousands of victims.
The neglectfulness characterizes not only the Conagua, responsible for regulating industrial discharges into the river but also the federal and state health and environmental authorities.
In Tlaxcala, for instance, there is not a health system that takes care of the thousands of patients: it is the families who pay for the patient’s transportation to Mexico City.
Contralínea invited the Ministry of Health of Tlaxcala to tell their version of the facts. However, Lorena Flores, an official of the area of social communication, informed that the director of hospitals, Dr. René Farfán, affirmed that there are no records of illnesses such as cancer nor its relationship with the pollution of the Atoyac River. For this reason, he declined the request for an interview.
That indifference to recognize that a problem exists is faced daily by the inhabitants of Tlaxcala, who roam from one place to another in search of medical attention. Nonetheless, in their entity, they do not find it. ‘We only have a health-care center, and there are no specialist doctors who can attend the disease that we suffer. I had to buy medicines for my daughter. The cheapest one cost me 1,500 Mexican pesos, and I had to purchase it every week’, assures Mrs. Chave.
In their despair, some neighbors go home by home to ask for spare change to pay for the convalescence, because in Tepetitla there are not even public ambulances.
In Puebla, the other entity affected by the industrial pollution of the basin, the situation is not any better: health services are not highly specialized, despite in its webpage the Ministry of Health of the state governed by Guillermo Pacheco recognizes the existence of ‘diseases linked to the Atoyac river.’
Among the illnesses, it cites intoxication from arsenic and lead [heavy metals associated with cancer], hepatitis A, cognitive delay, developmental delay, cholera, typhoid fever, ascariasis, schistosomiasis, malaria, malnutrition, and legionellosis.
Regarding the interview that Contralínea requested to get to know how they deal with these diseases affecting their population, the state Ministry of Health answered – through Sonia Hidalgo, of the area of social communication – that they cannot give an opinion as this task corresponds to the Ministry of environment.
The federal government also refused to disclose whether they rely on a sanitary route to face the emergency in the Atoyac basin. Through its area of social communication, the Ministry of Health, headed by Dr. Jorge Alcocer – assured to process the request for an interview, but by press time, and after one month of negotiations, he has not provided any answer.
According to Dr. Arellano Aguilar, in the responsibility chain, the health sector is the most omitted one, both at the federal and state level. ‘There is no direct attention to the affected people. They do not recognize that these diseases are caused by pollution. Children are dying, adults as well. We have a severe incidence of leukemia and renal distress, and no one takes care of this.’
By now, state and federal authorities have been unable to generate a classification and relationship between the pollution of the Atoyac River and the illnesses, even though since 2004 the Chamber of Deputies and Senators have agreed to address the high incidence of cancer and diseases associated with the industrial toxins. While governments look back at the emergency, people die by thousands.
Tens of evidence of industrial responsibility
The evidence recognizing industries as the main responsible for the health crisis in this geographical area are numerous. The environmental organization Greenpeace and Dr. Omar Arellano Aguilar revealed the different chemical substances that are present in the river, and they clearly come from factories.
‘We collected a list of chemicals, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, that are also recognized to be the cause of hormonal alterations. We found chemical substances that are carcinogenic and the peculiarity is that these heavy metals [arsenic and lead, for instance] do not remain in the sediments. Instead, in contact with the environment they volatilize and dissolve throughout the whole area’, points out the researcher.
He adds that the situation is so critical that, while they were carrying out the research, the patients who voluntarily participated in the project, were dying suddenly. ‘This situation is really frustrating, but it encourages us to keep working in this area.’
In the proximities of the Atoyac river, people are exposed to different polluting substances, some of which were declared carcinogen by the WHO, such as the benzene. Various industries – such as the petrochemical – employ this substance [the benzene] that dissolves in the air as it is highly volatile. For this reason, people continuously inhale this chemical.
Air, soil, and water permanently poison the inhabitants of Tlaxcala and Puebla. In addition, according to researcher Octavio Rosas, small enterprises dump their wastes into the irrigation channels used in agriculture, contaminating the food consumed by people. ‘The substances are leaking to the subsoil and polluting the aquifers. It is quite serious because they are contaminating the water for human consumption’.
‘These substances contaminate the channels that they employ to irrigate fields and hence they also contaminate food,’ confirms Alejandra Méndez, director of the center Centro Fray Julián Garcé,.
‘I dream of the day where I can see my river as it was before: crystal-clear and with fishes. In the meantime, I do not want more people to die. If my sister died, I do not want other people to die too’, says Rebeca Juaréz to Contralínea, who has also lost one of her relatives because of cancer.
Many industries, little control
According to researchers, advocators of human rights and inhabitants, it is clear that the impunity of the factories which pollute is the result of omissions and negligence of environmental and water authorities, especially in the subject of the regulation of highly-polluting industries.
Standard 001 of the Samarnat regulates the activity of chemical substances discharges into water bodies. It establishes the threshold allowed for the industries to release substances into water bodies.
‘This Standard establishes very loose thresholds, extremely elevated for any industry. Even when they dump polluting substances into the river, they are within the permitted limits. The Standard should be adjusted to set more restrictive limits. However, should it happen, any factory would not be compliant with the standard. Any of them would be illegal. That is why they do not do it’, expresses economist Octavio Rosas.
This inefficiency was showed through the research for the classification of water bodies conducted by the Conagua in 2005. It established that even though plants were compliant with Standard 001-1996, ‘the maximum permitted threshold of discharges would not be sufficient for rivers [such as the Atoyac river] to achieve acceptable water quality.’
As a result of this research, that Commission issued the ‘Declaration of classification of Atoyac and Xochiac rivers or Hueyapan and its tributaries’ (Declaratoria de clasificación de los ríos Atoyac y Xochiac o Hueyapan y sus afluentes), that established the parameters that wastewater discharges must comply with.
The authority started an administrative proceeding in the states of Tlaxcala and Puebla against those who violated the Standard. This led to a series of fines. However, after fourteen years, the death of thousands of people from diseases associated with pollution sheds light on negligence.
‘Just as a concession is requested to extract water, it is also asked for discharges. However, these thresholds are not respected. The Conagua agreed in 2011 that such limits were surpassed. The problem is that such entity does not have the necessary staff to carry out continuous inspections to be really informed of all those factories, assures anthropologist Paola Vásquez Santos, member of the Institute of Anthropological research of the UNAM.
The problem also appears in the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection. According to Alejandra Méndez, the institution “only has four inspectors for more than 20 thousand industries.” This has led to an increase in toxic substances in the river from industrial discharges without any real control.
The coordinator of the Centro Fray Julián Garcés points out that ‘authorities have been omitted. We have taken the case of the contamination of the river before the Latin-American Court of Water twice, to denounce the situation.’
In 2006, this Court noted that ‘the compounds such as fluoride, methylene chlorides, toluene, and chloroform are not duly contemplated in the Mexican standard.’ With the documentation presented by the communities and the Center, the Court said that by then those compounds were above the parameters allowed in other countries.
The advocator Alejandra Méndez adds that in 2011 a complaint was filed with the NCHR due to the various violations to human rights following such contamination. It resolved in favor of the population. Even though this happened in 2017, by now the recommendation remains in default.
Such a recommendation, identified with folio number 10/2017, ‘establishes that the state where the river is located is affecting the right to health of its inhabitants,’ acknowledges Dr. Rubén Francisco Pérez, coordinator of follow-up of the recommendations provided by the NCHR. They found out that federal and state authorities do not comply with the rules granting a healthy environment.
During an interview with Contralínea, Dr. Pérez assures that the recommendation consisted of two essential actions that authorities had to perform. Firstly, the authorities had to carry out sanitation works to clean up the river and provide their citizens with a healthy environment. Secondly, they had to sign a federal, state, and municipal collaboration agreement. ‘Such a collaboration agreement is an important instrument to comply with the recommendation because it gives order to the actions that the authorities are going to make.’
However, after 2 years from the issuance of the recommendation, this did not happen. Dr. Rubén Pérez assures that such delay is due to the ‘political mobility of the area.’ It is outstanding the failure of the governor of Puebla, Martha Érika Alonso, the changes in federal and state authorities, the changes in the municipal presidencies and the fire in the facilities of the Conagua in Mexico City as well.
‘All these administrative and political movements delayed the signing of the agreement, which represents a central action within the recommendation,’ affirms the coordinator of follow-up of the recommendations of the NCHR.
Even so, the official assures that actions to improve the situation of the river were carried out: follow-up to the concessions and permits of the industries, plants to make water drinkable and information campaigns.
The deputy director of the Directorate of water of the Conagua, Agustín Félix, assures that the authority carried out inspection processes following the issuance of the recommendation: ’We visited about 80 companies to which the respective sanctions were imposed’. Nonetheless, more than twenty thousand enterprises operate in the area.
Moreover, Dr. Félix states that the level of pollution of the river is due to the large municipal discharges and not to factories. Conversely, academic research and the recommendation itself show that pollution increases in the discharge areas of the factories, in the so-called industrial corridors.
‘We are aware that pollution is caused by factories and these should be forced to treat their waters,’ says Rebeca Juárez, an inhabitant of the municipality of San Rafael and a promoter, alongside her neighbors, of the complaint before the NCHR.
The industrial corridor of Quetzalcóatl starts in the municipality of San Baltazar Temaxcala, in Puebla and ends in Tlaxcala. In that area, there is a contamination monitor of the Conagua which employs a quite inefficient sample collector to regulate pollution. As it is unhygienic and not very technological, it causes other substances to be registered, which alters the results, considers the consulted experts.
In the place where the Conagua booth is located, it is possible to observe, in the middle of the river current, a recipient unexpectedly tied up with a cord that recollects the sample through which the institution can evaluate that the industrial discharges are compliant with the standard and that the contamination is the result of the municipal landfills. In other words, the inhabitants’ spills.
In this regard, Senator Verónica Delgadillo, belonging to the Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ movement) political party, points out that it is fundamental to reform art. 10 of Law on Environmental Responsibilities to correct this damage.
She assures that the different authorities, who were in charge of sanctioning the factories contaminating water sources, acted utterly reckless. ’45 percent of the country’s water basins have a low degree of contamination; 24 percent are highly-contaminated, and only 18 percent of the industrial discharges receive treatments’.
The Senator requires ‘that there are sanctions for anybody: the authorities that are being omitted in the follow-up and also public or private companies, which are being irresponsible when it comes to discharging their wastes.’
By Lauren Franco, correspondent
(Translated by: Federica Antoniani)