What a Wasteland
The Mexican-American border is a virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious disease.
--Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association, 1990
Nature respects geographic boundaries, not political ones.
Nogales Wash originates about 8.6 kilometers south of the Mexican-American border, fed by natural springs. The perennial wash travels north, through Nogales, Sonora, where it merges with storm flow and raw sewage, and crosses the border into Nogales, Arizona.
When Nogales Wash enters the United States, its water contains fecal coliform levels that are 12 million to 16 million times higher than U.S. drinking-water standards allow. The water is also contaminated with industrial by-products, including chlorinated solvents.
Chlorinated solvents--including trichloroethylene (TCE) and petrachlorethylene (PCE)--are highly toxic and depress the central nervous system. Many scientists believe they cause birth defects, cancer, and lupus, a chronic immune-system deficiency that damages the skin, joints, blood system and kidneys. Many others argue the link isn't so clear.
Nogales, Arizona, has the highest incidence of lupus ever recorded in the United States, and one of the highest rates of multiple myeloma, a rare bone cancer.
The population of Nogales, Arizona, is 20,000. There are, on average, 40 cases of cancer diagnosed there each month, five times the normal rate listed by the American Cancer Society.
Nogales Wash flows near 200 private drinking wells in Nogales, Arizona, several of which tap the aquifer directly. (After Nogales Wash flows through Nogales, Arizona, it joins Potrero Creek, which in turn flows into the Santa Cruz River just east of the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant. There the water is treated before being dumped back into the Santa Cruz, which serves as a source for Tucson's public water supply.)
Alarmed by the cancer and lupus rates, Nogales citizens, many of whom were sick, formed LIFE (Living Is for Everyone) in 1992. The group examined death certificates for the 603 people who died in Nogales, Arizona, between 1986 and late 1992, and found that nearly half, 290, died of lupus or cancer.
Spurred by LIFE's findings, the University of Arizona and the Arizona Department of Health Services conducted a study in 1994 that confirmed that the rates of lupus and multiple myeloma in Nogales, Arizona, were four times above normal.
"There is strong evidence that adverse health effects have occurred in residents of Nogales, Arizona," the study concluded. "These health effects may be the result of complex environmental exposures to biologic or chemical agents."
The study called for more studies. That's been the theme on the border for almost a decade.
In 1990, the Border Ecology Project released data from a two-year series of water samples from wells along Nogales Wash in Sonora. (One of the wells was a source for a company that treated the water for fecal contamination, but not solvents, then sold it to maquila workers in squatter camps.) The tests found hazardous levels of multiple contaminants, including PCE and TCE.
"We were immediately accused of being hysterical and using phony data--even though we used Arizona Department of Health laboratories--and both governments procrastinated," says Dick Kamp, director of the Bisbee-based Border Ecology Project. "They didn't even go back and retest the wells."
Three years later, University of Arizona scientists released a study in conjunction with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality that found that 24 percent of the population in Nogales, Sonora, drank contaminated water. The researchers tested 22 wells in Sonora and 13 in Arizona, and found chlorinated solvents and fecal bacteria in all of them. (The contamination on the Arizona side did not exceed health limits.)
In Sonora, solvent contamination was heaviest around three maquiladora parks in southern Nogales. The scientists also tested water in the sewers around the industrial parks, and reported the solvent content was so high it was difficult even to take the samples.
The most recent study of water in Nogales was released in June, and this time, it came from an official heavyweight--the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational group of scientists from Mexico and the United States, funded by both governments.
The recent IBWC report revealed that several wells along Nogales Wash in Sonora--including one used for public drinking water until recently--were contaminated with PCE. Contamination in one well was extreme--140 parts per million of PCE (the U.S. standard for safe drinking water is 5 ppm, the Mexican standard is 8).
Seven wells on the Arizona side had no chlorinated solvents, although the scientists discovered high levels of arsenic and nitrates in two of them.
Water from a well ADEQ drilled in 1993 just south of the border at a point of constriction in the groundwater basin--a spot where most of the flow from Mexico passes--also exceeded both the U.S. and Mexican safe-water limits for PCE.
"The presence of these solvents in the Nogales Wash has been almost irrefutable for nine years," says Kamp. "It's a terrifying situation that this knowingly went on for so long, but it's also a typically political situation.
"Now that the governments have both checked for themselves, and come up with impeccable data that says we've got solvents in the groundwater, the next logical step is not to sit around and monitor the situation for another 10 years, but to react quickly.
"Go punch around with geo probes that test for vapors, and track the sources down, and someone better check the wells that aren't along the wash on the Sonora side, because my guess is they're contaminated as well."
Kamp believes the health of residents on both sides of the border has been severely harmed.
"The contamination spans across so broad an area, and is so ubiquitous, and there have been so many years of dumping, I think it would be shocking if there haven't been [health] consequences, because people have been exposed for some time now," Kamp says.
Health statistics in Mexico--like nearly all government data--are rife with both misinformation and disinformation. No credible numbers for the rate of cancer and lupus in Nogales, Sonora, are available.
However, in 1992, the Sonoran Health Department reported 17 cases of anencephaly--stillborn babies without brains--in Nogales since 1990.
The Sonoran Health Department has not released more current data on birth defects in Nogales, but during a 1993 conference in El Paso, Mexican officials said the rate of anencephaly in Mexican border cities was four to 10 times above average.
There has been no indication of an abnormally high rate of anencephaly in Nogales, Arizona.
In 1993, however, eight families in Brownsville, Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. owners of five maquiladoras in Matamoros, Chihuahua, including Zenith Electronics, alleging that their solvents contaminated the groundwater and caused anencephaly. (The rate of anencephaly in Brownsville is three times above average; 126 cases were reported from 1980 to 1992.)
The maquilas settled the lawsuit out of court for a reported $10,714 per brainless baby.
U.S. law does not require American maquila owners to comply with American environmental standards. The U.S. also lacks the jurisdiction to enforce the laws of Mexico, whose environmental protection agencies are vastly understaffed and underfunded.
During the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico promised repeatedly to enforce environmental laws, and signed a side agreement to NAFTA that prohibits any member country from creating a "polluters' haven."
Two months after NAFTA was ratified, instead of tightening enforcement, Mexico scaled back several of its key environmental laws, including those governing environmental impact statements for new businesses.
In maquiladoras, as in all Mexican industries, sound environmental practices are practically voluntary. And many maquilas choose to illegally dump hazardous waste (or hire someone to do it for them) instead of shipping it into the U.S. for proper treatment and disposal.
It costs a maquila $150 to $700 per barrel to ship hazardous waste back to the U.S., depending on the type of waste. Dumping it down a sewer nicely pads monthly profits.
Hiring a materialista--independent hazardous-waste contractors in Mexico, often of dubious integrity--is also an attractive alternative. They charge $20 to $40 per barrel disposed.
Even harsh critics of maquiladoras agree the industry has cleaned up its act somewhat in the past 10 years. That's due in part to media attention.
Also, maquilas are becoming more environmentally conscious. Several highly toxic but common chemicals have been replaced with newer, milder ones.
"The chemicals we saw inside maquiladoras in a 1994 inventory were much better than in 1988," says Kamp.
General Motors has installed self-contained wastewater treatment plants inside 31 of its maquilas.
Still, "midnight dumping" is presumed widespread. How widespread is anyone's guess--literally. There are no specific inventories of chemicals shipped from the U.S. to maquilas in Mexico, and no one keeps track of exactly how much waste comes back.
"There's just no way to do that," says Chris Reiner, director of hazardous waste for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region IX, which includes Arizona and California. "It's theoretically possible, but it's not practically realistic.
"Different plants use so many different processes and have different efficiencies that they could all produce different amounts of waste starting with the same amount of the same chemicals."
In 1988, Mexico enacted a law requiring that hazardous chemicals imported must be re-exported to the U.S., but like most environmental laws in Mexico, it's simply not enforced.
The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that maquiladoras in Sonora generated 5.5 million tons of hazardous waste last year. Documents at the Department of Transportation indicate that only 11.9 percent of it came back to the United States.
Mexican officials estimated in 1995 that only 6.2 million tons of toxic waste are generated each year by maquiladoras in all of Mexico. Of that, they said, only 15 percent is disposed of properly.
The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of all of Mexico's industrial effluents are released directly into sewers without treatment. The result is substandard drinking water.
"Maquilas must realize that pollution of this type is contrary to the long-term productivity of their operations in Mexico," says David Eaton, an analyst with National Law Center of Inter-American Free Trade, based in Tucson.
Wastewater treatment in Mexico is rare. Only 10 percent of the country's industrial and municipal waste receives any. Estimates say it would take more than $1 billion to upgrade Mexico's wastewater treatment facilities to meet the demand expected in 2000.
The Center for Environmental Quality in Monterrey estimates it would cost $1.5 billion to build proper disposal facilities for hazardous industrial waste in Mexico.
Placido Dos Santos, border manager for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, says the biggest environmental problem on the border is low Mexican wages, which force workers to live in substandard housing without sewer systems. Meager pay also causes workers to drive older, less efficient cars and pollute the air in the winter with open fires to stay warm.
"The biggest environmental contribution the maquilas can make is paying workers enough to improve housing," Dos Santos says.
As with laws governing hazardous waste, regulations covering the health and safety of maquiladora workers are routinely ignored.
Pick your study--there have been dozens on worker health and safety in the maquiladoras since 1990, all of which reported similar findings: Most maquila workers never receive any safety training or information on hazardous chemicals in their workplace, both of which are required by Mexican federal law. Each plant is required to have a "Joint Management-Worker Health and Safety Commission" that meets regularly, but the committees are practically nonexistent.
The plants are not always the only culprits, however. Maria Guzman, the company nurse for the four Nogales maquilas owned by New York-based corporation Amphenol, says workers are to blame for almost all accidents.
"They take out the safety guards [from machinery] so they can work faster, and they're always talking, playing and laughing, not paying close attention," she says. "Also, some of them don't eat, so they fall asleep and the machinery hurts them."
Most of the workers she treats come to her with repetitive-stress injuries or, if they work in areas where solvents are used, headaches.
"The chemicals smell really nasty, like the liquid that takes paint off girls' nails," says Guzman, 45. "They say breathing it hurts their head, so I give them aspirin. If they're not better in a week, I ask managers to rotate them to another area."
Guzman says she constantly harangues employees who work with solvents to don the safety gear Amphenol provides for them, and they simply refuse.
"They say, 'Well, we have to die someday,'" Guzman says.
About a year ago, Guzman says, she told plant managers they needed to start suspending workers for not wearing safety equipment. "They did for a while, but production went down, so they stopped," she says.
Get the Weekly Newsletter