Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

HEALTH: Birth Defects Continue in US-Mexico Border Areas

Danielle Knight

BROWNSVILLE, Texas, Jun 19 1998 (IPS) - Continued high rates of birth defects have been reported in the industrial areas along Mexico’s border with Texas state of Texas, despite promises that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would address such problems.

“While the actual number of certain defects in this region fluctuate each year, the rates of these birth defects continue to be statistically high along the border,” Russell Larson, a public health scientist and medical doctor with the Texas Department of Health, told IPS. “There is no question that this is a high risk area because of poverty and the growth of maquila (assembly) plants.”

Since 1986, the number of babies born with neural tube defects has been between two and four times higher in this border area than elsewhere. These defects include anencephaly – which prevents the formation of a complete brain or skull- and the spinal nerve defect called spina bifida.

During the 1993 debate over NAFTA, opponents of the trade agreement argued that the problem was an example of the effects on humans of industrialisation without necessary health and environmental safeguards. Supporters of the agreement said that the human health crisis could only be solved through better cooperation through the new cross-border environmental institutions set up under NAFTA.

“The NAFTA package gives us the ability to assure that those (birth defect) problems will be addressed,” Lloyd Bentsen, then U.S. Treasury Secretary, said at the time. He was referring to the environmental institutions set up under a NAFTA side agreement.

Despite media and public attention, the incidence of certain birth defects has not improved since the agreement took effect four and-a-half years ago, say health officials.

According to Russell Larson, a public health scientist studying birth defects at the Texas Department of Health, from 1993 to 1996 about 46 babies were born with neural tube defects in Cameron county – the county that encompasses Brownsville.

In the four border counties – including Cameron – studied by the Department of Health, the overall rate of these defects during this time period was about 15 per every 10,000 births. In 1995, the average rate for the United States was 6.2 per every 10,000 births.

Public health scientists in Texas began studying neural tube defects after a cluster of anecephalic babies occurred in Brownsville in 1991.

In just one 36-hour period, three women gave birth to anencephalic babies. By May 1992, doctors had found 30 of these cases in Texas. About 42 cases were identified across the border in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in the same period. Tamaulipas contains hundreds of foreign-owned maquilas and reportedly had 386 recorded cases of anencephalic babies between 1987 and 1992.

While the neural tube defect rate remained high in the border region, nothing as drastic as in 1991 has been witnessed since then, Larson said

Despite an investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Texas Department of Health, the specific cause of this epidemic was never identified. Four possible causes of anencephaly identified in the study were the consumption of contaminated corn, folic-acid vitamin deficiency, exposure to toxic chemicals, and intake of medication.

This official study focused mostly on the folic acid theory and found that high doses of this vitamin during pregnancy can significantly reduce the chance of women who have had babies affected by neural tube defects. Currently, the Texas Department of Health encourages mothers who have had babies with neural tube defects to take folic acid supplements.

Carmen Rocco, a doctor at the Brownsville Community Health Center disagrees with the department of health’s emphasis on folic acid.

“Even though the mothers of anencephalic children benefit from the folic acid supplements, none were not found with to have deficiencies in this nutrient,” she says.

“The Texas Department of Health had to look like they were doing something, so they promoted vitamins,” she told IPS. “Yet, the rates of anencephaly leveled off before folic acid was emphasized, not because of folic acid.”

Rocco believes that the department of health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not examined pollution closely enough as a possible cause.

“A five year study of the border region – recently released by the EPA – blatantly omitted an environmental analysis of Matamoros pollution,” she told IPS. “More should be done involving the local communities on both sides of the border to find the answers.”

She points to studies that link birth defects to chemical exposure, like the one published in 1990 by the American Journal of Epidemiology that found that men who worked in certain industries were 2.5 more likely to father an anencephalic child.

Families of the dead and deformed babies in Brownsville filed a lawsuit blaming an airborne cocktail of solvents, acids, and heavy metals, blown over the Rio Grande by prevailing winds from the U.S.-owned factories located in the heavily industrialised Mexican town of Matamoros. The defendants – including General Motors, Kemet Electronics and Trico – make everything from windshield wipers to hydrofluoric acid. All the companies denied causing the birth defects.

Before the case came to trial, the defendants settled the lawsuit and paid a total of 17 million dollars to the families in 1995. As part of the settlement terms, the defendants denied any responsibility and the amounts paid by specific defendants remain confidential.

More than 40 women who worked in Matamoros at the U.S.-owned Mallory Capacitor Company between 1968 and 1977 and had babies with similar defects, also suit against the company. Other defendants joined this suit and eventually 270 claims were eventually filed.

In 1995, 80 Mexican families settled out of court for 15 million dollars. In return, the company’s owers have admitted no wrong doing.

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