MAC: Mines and Communities

Seaside Lead Poisoning Traced To Mexico

Published by MAC on 2007-03-30


Seaside lead poisoning traced to Mexico

Herald Salinas Bureau, 30 March 2007

Research into a high incidence of lead poisoning in Seaside has traced the cause to a village in Oaxaca, Mexico, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found. Through a series of studies, UCSF investigators have identified "significant occurrences" of lead poisoning among young children and pregnant women who seek care at the Seaside Health Clinic, operated by the Monterey County Health Department.

The report on these studies will be published in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health, and describes how routine screenings of residents uncovered a previously unidentified problem of lead contamination occurring in Zimatlán, hometown of many Oaxacan immigrants now living in Monterey County.

The team of researchers, led by Margaret Handley, examined the data from routine checkups done in children younger than 6 and found more than 50 cases of elevated blood lead levels a year between 2001 and 2004. The levels are set at 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It was 6 percent higher than the national standard and higher than the Alisal Health Center or the Marina Health Center," Handley said. Once the investigators zoomed into the homes of the affected children, they found the most likely culprits: chapulines -- grasshoppers -- from Zimatlán, a village in the central region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Studies in Zimatlán found high concentrations of lead in the ground, the likely result of previous silver mining.

"We do know there's highly contaminated soil in this community and that was distributed many places many years ago," Handley said. A delicacy among Oaxacan natives, grasshoppers are caught, cleansed and dried with salt and lemon and eaten as one would salted peanuts. They are high in protein and taste much like dried shrimp.

The chapulines make their way into the United States via care packages. People grow homesick for familiar flavors, call home to ask for a bundle of herbs, chocolate and grasshoppers, and in a few days the package arrives.

Rogelio Alcantara, a longtime Salinas resident, received such a package in November, the peak of the grasshopper season. The tiny creatures pop out of the earth after the rains and live in the corn fields.

"It's the food of the most poor," he said as he sampled from the bag he still has from last year's delivery. "When you have chapulines, all you need is tortillas and you have a taco."

Alcantara, a successful business owner, finds it hard to believe the chapulines could be tainted. His come from his hometown of Ocotlán, 30 miles away from Zimatlán, where the lead-contaminated critters have been found.

"We've been eating it all of our lives, and here we are," he said. But he is keeping an open mind.

According to the CDC, lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body, and because it often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, comas and even death. It is most dangerous in young children and pregnant women.

It could be, Alcantara said, that he knows people who suffered from lead poisoning and they were just written off as unable to learn. "Like we say, if he doesn't learn, he's a donkey," he said. "But if you do those studies, you realize it's not their fault they can't learn."

Handley and other researchers are working with Monterey County health promoters to educate the community about the dangers of lead poisoning. With the help of anthropologist Jim Grieshop from UC-Davis and researchers Mario Villalobos and Claudia Merino in Mexico, who conducted the field research in Oaxaca, they are also reaching out to the Mexican communities so they too can learn about the issue.

"The foods themselves are good -- many foods sent from this region have a high nutrition value," Handley said. "They are part of people's diet and they're actually quite positive foods. In many of these cases, these are contaminants, and contaminants can be removed."

Study's 3 key implications 1. There is a significant ongoing public health problem of lead poisoning in Seaside. This discovery represents the tip of the iceberg of a previously unidentified and much larger problem in the Seaside community and in Oaxaca, Mexico. 2. While great progress has been made in reducing the burden of lead in the U.S., there are still many pockets of lead exposure, where populations disproportionately experience the damaging effects of lead. 3. Just as infectious organisms can make their way across borders and cause illness, environmental health problems can cross those same borders.

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