e expected that maybe 2 or 3 percent of the chil dren whose blood we got would have levels above 40 micrograms,” remembers Landrigan, sitting in his spacious office in New York this past August. \(Since his first trip to El Paso, the scientist has become one of the world experts on child Landrigan and his colleague found that more than half their subjects had elevated rumored to have taken a forced retirement in 1970 when it Periodically there would be complaints to city authorities about the sulfur clouds. Residents would flee into their homes to escape the yellow smog. It was rumored that ASARCO routinely waited until evening for its big releases or until the wind was blowing toward Mexico just across the river from the plant. Ironically, the way El Pasoans cool themselves may have increased their exposure to toxins in the air, notes Garza. In desert areas like Arizona, New Mexico, and El Paso, evaporative coolers known as swamp coolers have been prevalent for well over half a century. Unlike air conditioners, which circulate air, swamp coolers draw air from the outside, add moisture, and pump it into the house. The first serious challenge ASARCO faced from El Paso authorities didn’t come until 1971. The city and the state air control board started to study readings of the emissions from the smelters. They wanted the information for a lawsuit against the company over the sulfur dioxide releases. In the course of taking depositions and testimony it came out that ASARCO was also releasing massive quantities of heavy metals. Dr. Bernard Rosenblum, head of the city health department, looked into it. His investigation determined that the smelter had emitted 1,012 metric tons of lead, as well as 508 metric tons of zinc, 11 metric tons of cadmium, and 1 metric ton of arsenic from its stacks between 1969 and 1971. Rosenblum estimated that 2,700 people between the ages of 1 and 19 in a four-mile radius around ASARCO had blood lead levels at or above 40 micrograms. \(It’s unclear whether his calculation The doctor desperately tried to get the attention of authorities outside El Paso to tell them about the situation. He wrote to everyone from the EPA to Texas Senator John Tower. Finally, his distress signal was heard by the CDC in Atlanta. In early 1971, the CDC dispatched two young doctors to investigate. One of them was Phillip Landrigan, a young second-year officer in the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Phillip Landrigan lead levels. They went back to the CDC and sold their bosses on a larger study. After extensive testing, a team of about a dozen scientists determined that 59 percent of those children from 1 to 9 years old living within 1.6 kilometers of the smelter had lead levels high enough to be considered dangerous. They also found high levels in the soil considerably beyond the 1.6 kilometer radius. There was no doubt in Landrigan’s mind that the major source of the contamination came from the smelter stacks. ASARCO to this day denies that it is responsible for heavy metals contamination in El Paso. “This is an urban area,” says Lairy Johnson, an environmental manager at the smelter. “There is going to be lead.” After the study, the CDC sent Landrigan overseas. During that time, ASARCO and the city fathers took action. In February 1972, ASARCO and the city settled the lawsuit. They decided that contamination from the plant had affected only Smeltertown. Since ASARCO owned the land, it just needed to evict the workers to solve the problem. Some of the families had lived in Smeltertown for generations. No matter. Lawyers settled on a formula of payouts, ranging between $500 and $7,000, based on blood lead level, according to Mary Romero, an academic who wrote about the community for a collection of essays called The Chicano Struggle. “Negotiating evictions as the method to reduce lead exposure was an important compromise because it restricted responsibility and obligations to a manageable level,” wrote Romero. “Evacuation abrogated the city’s responsibility tp provide services to Smeltertown and ASARCO’s responsibility to decontaminate the area?’ To make everything copacetic, the company provided its own scientist, Dr. James McNeil, to contradict Landrigan and the CDC. In one paper, McNeil went almost to comic lengths to not name the company as a responsible party. Analyzing children’s blood tests from El Paso, he wrote: “A unique group of children discovered accidentally presented a naturally occurring experimental model for the study?’ McNeil blamed the elevated lead levels on economically impoverished children eating lead-based paint. He stressed that blood lead levels in the range of 40 micrograms to 80 micrograms were perfectly safe if a child had good nutrition. “From a practical standpoint, the problem with Smeltertown has been eliminated,” he wrote. “The village is gone. Former residents have been scattered throughout El Paso, their rent has gone up and their money for food has gone down:* When Landrigan returned to the United States he put together a proposal for a study of the smelter area based on new research which indicated that child lead poisoning, even at low levels, could harm the nervous system and brain function. ASARCO and the city fathers had other ideas. In March of 1972, the El Paso Pediatrics Society made the following announcement. “From the statistical data available to us there is no evidence that there is a lead intoxication problem outside Smeltertown.” Two months later, the Lead Surveillance Committee of the El Paso County Medical Society met. Doctors James McNeil, Bernard Rosenblum, Jose Alva, Jose Roman, and Jorge Magana formed the committee. 10/8/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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