Latino Lives, Health At Risk


Maria Nolasco is raising three grandchildren who were poisoned by lead paint. She lives in Bushwick, a low-income section of Brooklyn, New York where houses colored with toxic lead paint are common. Many Bushwick children suffer from lead poisoning, which brings permanent brain damage, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems.

In Salinas, California, former farmworker Jorge Fernandez is living with blurred vision, head, throat, ear and abdomen aches, and rashes after working for 12 years with the pesticide methyl bromide in the fields of California and Arizona. "I was never informed that this was harmful," says Fernandez, who has been unable to work since September 2003.

Nolasco and Fernandez are two of the people coping with environmental health problems who are featured in the Sierra Club's first "Latino Communities at Risk Report," released on Tuesday from the national organization's Washington, DC headquarters.

The Sierra Club says the report and a companion Spanish language television ad detail "the cumulative impact of harmful Bush administration environmental policies on Hispanic communities."

"While Americans are diverted by war and millions of job losses, the Bush administration is quietly stripping protections from our air, water and lands, seriously threatening our health and heritage and putting Latino communities at risk," said Robbie Cox, Sierra Club board member and former president.

The report features stories of people across the country: in Las Vegas, Nevada; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; St. Petersburg, Florida; Fajardo, Puerto Rico; Fresno, California; Blanco, New Mexico; Tar Heel, North Carolina; Tucson, Arizona; and Reynosa, Mexico.

And the report tells the story of Fernandez and his fellow farmworker Guillermo Ruiz who are suffering from asthma linked to pollution of the air by the pesticide and soil fumigant, methyl bromide.

Ruiz, who has also been out of work since September 2003 due to methyl bromide exposure, says, "They would just give us a pair of plastic pants and a paper mask which provided no protection. There were days when I could not speak because within a couple of hours the gas would burn your throat."

Most Powerful Toxic

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates methyl bromide in the most powerful class of toxic chemicals. In California alone, 18 people have died and hundreds have been poisoned by it.

The Sierra Club blames the Bush administration for incidences of asthma related to methyl bromide. Earlier this year the administration requested and was granted exemptions from the Montreal Protocol that will allow the continued use of thousands of pounds of methyl bromide on agricultural fields although the chemical is supposed to be banned in 2005 because it depletes the ozone layer.

The administration acted at the request of the growers, who say affordable alternatives to methyl bromide do not exist, but it is the workers, the majority of them Latinos, who bear the brunt of the methyl bromide exposure.

"We get to do this job just because we are Mexicans," Fernandez says. "Why doesn't Mr. Bush come and do it instead?"

Asthma mortality rates are higher than average in the Latino community, and asthma attacks are the leading cause of school absence. Still, the Sierra Club says, "the Bush administration has weakened Clean Air Act protections, which will likely increase asthma related air pollution."

Lead paint is a major source of lead poisoning for children and can also affect adults, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In children, lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage and can impair mental functioning. It can retard mental and physical development and reduce attention span. It can also retard fetal development even at extremely low levels of lead.

Old Lead, New Problems

U.S. law prohibited lead in paint as of 1978, so new paint is free of lead. But in older buildings, such as those in the once grand Bushwick section of Brooklyn, expensive lead paint was used because of its superior coating qualities that protected the wood from weathering.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency based in Atlanta, was scheduled to consider stronger standards for lead poisoning, but has taken no action.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups and Congressional Democrats such as Representative Henry Waxman, say the stalling began when the Bush administration appointed people with direct ties to the lead industry to oversee regulatory action.

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) rejected several experts that the CDC's own staff scientists had recommended for the committee in favor of people more likely to oppose tightening the standard. At least two of the new appointees had direct financial ties to the lead industry.

Specifically, HHS failed to reappoint Dr. Michael Weitzman of the University of Rochester and rejected the nominations of Dr. Bruce Lanphear of the University of Cincinatti and Dr. Susan Klitzman of the Hunter College School of Health Sciences, who have each published numerous papers in the scientific literature on lead poisoning.

In their place, HHS proposed several individuals with ties to the lead industry, including Dr. William Banner, who has served as an expert witness for Sherwin-Williams paint company, a maker of lead paint, and Dr. Joyce Tsuji, who worked for two companies that represented lead firms.

Dr. Banner testified in a 2001 court case that a lead level of 70 micrograms per deciliter of blood is safe for children's brains. This position is not shared by any expert or scientific organization independent of the lead industry.

The current federal blood level that defines lead poisoning is 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter. But since poisoning may occur at lower levels than previously thought, various federal agencies are considering whether this level should be lowered further so that lead poisoning prevention programs will have the latest information on testing children for lead poisoning.

Dr. Sergio Piomelli, another new member of the CDC committee, said at the October 2002 meeting, "Before some reporter detects it, I would like you to know that I was called a few months ago from somebody in the lead industry ... and asked if I don't mind if they nominated me for this committee. I said, 'Yes.'"

Preventing Poisoning

Stronger lead paint regulations would have helped Maria Nolasco of Brooklyn in her fight for a citywide lead law that would save other children from the same fate as her three lead-poisoned grandchildren.

Working with Make the Road by Walking, a Bushwick-based organization, Nolasco and other community leaders, along with Sierra Club's local Environmental Justice Committee, joined with the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning – a network of medical doctors, labor unions, and environmental, tenant and low-income housing groups. They advocated for a stronger city law to prevent childhood lead poisoning.

The coalition had hoped the federal government would change the regulations in favor of greater protection, but the CDC's standard for lead paint has not changed.

Nolasco said, "Lead poisoning has been devastating to the children, to me and to our entire family."

"Every community, every person deserves environmental protection," said Alejandro Queral, Sierra Club advisor to the Environmental Partnerships program. "The Bush administration should strictly enforce existing environmental laws, and use modern technology to protect all of our communities so that our kids have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe."

The Sierra Club says America's Latino community is "disproportionately at risk."

The report cites studies showing that Latino communities are located in the most polluted areas of cities. They show:

  • Three out of every five Latinos live in communities near uncontrolled toxic waste sites;
  • Eighty percent of Latinos live in the 437 counties with the country's worst air, compared to 57 percent of Anglos and 65 percent of African Americans;
  • Ninety percent of farm workers are Latinos and are exposed to toxic pesticides.

To read the 'Latino Communities at Risk Report,' online in Spanish or English or to view the companion Spanish-language television ad, visit

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