MEXICO: Asbestos, a Toxic Neighbour

  • by Emilio Godoy (mexico city)
  • Inter Press Service

Thanks to summer vacation, which ends in late August, the students have a break from the penetrating stench from the American Roll factory that produces asbestos brake linings for cars. The odour from the nearby plant made this reporter's throat burn.

'You smell the stench at every hour of the day, it's horrible,' Teresa Martínez, a homemaker who lives near the plant, told IPS. 'In the morning, as I'm hanging clothes up to dry outside, I can see the shadow cast by what comes out of the factory's smokestack, and a yellow film of dust is left on the ground.'

One day in December 2009, Martínez, who moved to Barrio de San Lucas, in the eastern Mexico City district of Iztapalapa, at the age of 12, saw blood in her urine. It happened again in February and March 2010. When she went to the doctor, she was diagnosed with a tumour in the bladder, which has been removed.

'The doctor asked me if I had worked in a solvent factory, because these tumours are caused by inhaling those kinds of substances. He also told me the disease could come back, from breathing those gases,' said Martínez, who has kept the growth removed from her bladder as a reminder of what happened.

For over a decade, local residents have fought to get the factory removed from Iztapalapa, which is governed by Clara Brugada of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

'We are suffering from the pollution,' said María Cruz, one of those involved in the movement against the plant, who lives across the street from Martínez and suffers from migraines and pain in her nose. 'That is why we continue to fight the factory,' she told IPS.

The brake factory was run by the Mexican corporation ITAPSA for nearly three decades. In the late 1990s, the company relocated, and used the building in Barrios de San Lucas as a warehouse. But in 2001, the factory reopened under the name of American Roll, operated by different Mexican owners.

For 10 years, Dr. Guadalupe Aguilar, a researcher at the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), has been studying the effects of asbestos on human health. But her warnings about the naturally occurring mineral fiber, which is valued because of its flexibility and fire-resistance, seem to fall on deaf ears.

The number of cases of asbestos-related health problems 'began to increase in 1998, and the epidemic is growing, but no one is paying attention,' she told IPS.

Aguilar and her colleagues have carried out two health studies on asbestos, and plan to launch a third in January 2011.

Although the use and importation of asbestos has been banned by 52 nations, including those of the European Union, along with Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, more than 1,800 companies in Mexico use the mineral to manufacture some 3,000 products, like brake linings, furnaces and pipes.

The companies used a total of 17,000 tons of asbestos in 2007, according to government figures.

In the greater Mexico City area alone, 42 companies work with raw asbestos.

'The authorities have our documents. We have all the necessary permits,' María Martínez, American Roll's legal representative, told IPS. 'Many arguments have been used against us because of political interests that have their eyes on this piece of land.'

Asbestos exposure has been proven to cause mesothelioma cancer (a rare cancer of the cells that make up the lining around the outside of the lungs and inside of the ribs or around the abdominal organs), lung and stomach cancer, and asbestosis (a disorder that affects the respiratory tract as a result of inhaling asbestos fibers).

In Mexico, 1,772 deaths from mesothelioma cancer were reported between 1979 and 2006. In 2008, 200 cases were reported, according to Aguilar.

But she said asbestos-related diseases are underreported, and added that they currently claim 1,500 lives a year in Mexico.

Worldwide, 125 million people are exposed to asbestos on their jobs every year, and 90,000 die from asbestos-related diseases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports.

'We have seen an increase in cases of mesothelioma, compared to when Mexico used to purchase asbestos from abroad. We have seen the same phenomenon here as in other countries -- that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic,' said Aguilar, whose studies were published in 2004 and 2009.

One of their conclusions was that manufacturing workers exposed to asbestos in their workplace are 14 times more likely to be affected by mesothelioma.

Suppliers of asbestos like Canada have managed to get white asbestos, or chrysotile, excluded from the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade.

The Rotterdam Convention, in effect since 2004, calls on exporters of hazardous chemicals to use proper labelling, provide directions for safe handling, and inform purchasers of any known restrictions or bans.

Opponents of the plant in Barrio de San Lucas achieved temporary success in January 2004, when the plant was shut down. But it reopened shortly afterwards, thanks to a court order.

The activists blame pollution caused by the plant for the deaths of at least 10 people, including Jaime Carbajal, who went to the emergency room at the Iztapalapa General Hospital in March 2008 with sharp pains in the chest and back and difficulty breathing.

Carbajal, who had never worked with asbestos but lived near the factory, died of mesothelioma in May.

The neighbourhood movement hopes that Brugada, who became mayor of Iztapalapa borough in December and whose term ends in 2012, will help them close down the plant. 'We have met with her twice, and she told us the company was going to pull out of the area. But we don't want it to be relocated; we want it to leave the country,' Teresa Martínez said.

María Martínez, American Roll's legal representative, said the company would introduce changes in the system used to produce the brake linings, in order to curb the bad odour. 'There are many economic interests pressuring to remove asbestos from the market. But no can deny that it's a very valuable material even though it is carcinogenic.'

Those opposed to the plant are running out of patience, and have not ruled out radical actions, such as blocking the entrance to the plant, while continuing to fight the company in court. 'We are not going to let it go on operating,' said Cruz, whose husband also has respiratory problems. 'The years are going by, and we are still exposed to asbestos.'

But concern about the pollution in Iztapalapa has already reached the corridors of the Mexico City legislative assembly, which may pass a regulation on asbestos.

Aguilar has proposed a draft statute that would ban the use and import of asbestos, and would require monitoring of public health, an educational campaign on the risks posed by asbestos, and the creation of a fund to compensate victims of workplace or environmental exposure.

The Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) will publish an Asbestos Atlas this year, including reports from a number of countries, including Mexico. The chapter on Mexico will be written by Aguilar and her colleague Cuauhtémoc Juárez.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service