Birth defects tell story of toxic water

From the smog-coated capital to polluted lakeside villages, agricultural and industrial pollution and poor regulation have sickened communities across Mexico

ReutersEduardo Baltazar is the youngest to have a kidney transplant in his village, Agua Caliente.


Agua Calient (Mexico): Eduardo Baltazar is the youngest person in the tiny Mexican village of Agua Caliente to have a kidney transplant, undergoing the life-saving surgery a month shy of his 13th birthday.

The boy is one of many victims of a health crisis in the state of Jalisco that environmental experts are linking to water and air pollution, despite denials by the government.

A University of Guadalajara investigation into the 950 residents of Agua Caliente on the shores of Lake Chapala has confirmed what locals have known for years — chronic kidney disease has reached epidemic levels and is hitting children hardest.

From the smog-coated capital to polluted lakeside villages, agricultural and industrial pollution and poor regulation have sickened communities across Mexico, say campaigners.

The university researchers say toxic contaminants caused by agricultural pesticides that flow into Mexico’s largest freshwater lake have compounded the miseries of Agua Caliente residents already battling malnutrition and poverty.

But the state government blames a range of other factors for the epidemic of sickness — from diet to pollution from cooking with firewood and even inbreeding.

More than half of schoolchildren in the village have damaged kidneys, and only one in six demonstrates healthy cognitive development, university investigators say. The research has found significant attention and memory deficit among local children, according to leading investigator Aarón Peregrina. Many also struggle with fine motor skills, used for drawing, writing and eating.

Guadalajara’s Civilian Hospital documented 70 cases of birth defects from 2009 to 2016 in Poncitlán municipality, which includes Agua Caliente and a handful of other villages on the shores of Lake Chapala.

Abnormalities include heart defects, club feet, malformed hands, according to Guadalajara Socio-Environmental Forum, an activist group.

The Baltazar family has been devastated. Eduardo’s 17-year-old cousin, who grew up in the same cinder-block home, is battling end-stage renal disease. His sister Estrella died from kidney failure at age 10 last year.

Nestled between hills on one side and Lake Chapala on the other, the village of Agua Caliente takes its name, which translates as “Hot Water”, from thermal springs that villagers use for washing and drinking.

Activists say the spring water is bursting with dangerous toxic contaminants. But university investigators think dangerous levels of local exposure to agricultural pesticides are also behind the health crisis. “It’s more complicated than the springs,” said Felipe Lozano who leads the investigation. All of the 451 inhabitants who participated in a urine study tested positive for pesticides including the insecticide dimethoate and the popular weed killer glyphosate.

The exposure was across the board, not linked directly to farm work, the researchers found, and they determined the only way everyone could have the same level of pesticides in their systems was through the air. “We detected the same levels of glyphosate in 2-year-old girls as 50-year-old men,” Lozano said.

“There are pesticides in the lake. When the water heats, it evaporates, and the air currents pass from the lake to the population,” Lozano said.

A hair analysis of nine pregnant women in Agua Caliente detected high doses of arsenic, which can cause kidney disease and birth defects, Lozano said. “The water was clear before, and we used it to cook beans,” said Adriana Gutierrez, 28, a lifelong resident of Agua Caliente. “Now it’s too polluted.”

— Reuters

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