The levels of arsenic ignite the alarms in a small mining community, which still does not know what the effects on the health of its inhabitants have been.
“This problem is not new, it comes from many years ago,” says Edgar Moreno, as he lifts his hands from the table and shows them. “It looks like it has a burn as if it had a scale and I have spots,” he explains. Moreno has arsenicism for 20 years, half of his life. His brother Francisco, too. His mother has high levels of arsenic in the body, but it has not manifested in visible affectations. All were born and have spent their whole lives in Zimapán , a small mining community in Hidalgo, in central Mexico . Since the beginning of the nineties, wells have been found with arsenic concentrations 100 times greater than what the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends and 40 times greater than the Mexican norm.
“It is poison, a threat to the life of the Zimapenses and we are in a situation of sanitary alert”, exposes the mayor Erick Marte Rivera . Some 20,000 inhabitants, half of the population, are at risk. Although there are documented works on the presence of harmful chemicals, it is still unknown how it has affected and how many people suffer the consequences of consuming polluted water for decades. “There is no talk of the situation, there is no specific care, there is no support or interest on the part of the authorities or of us, those affected,” says Moreno, who has learned to live with respiratory and skin problems.
Zimapán is embedded in the Sierra Madre Oriental and is held as a mining capital of Mexico. Everything refers to the mines: the streets, the businesses, the food, the old social differences between the owners and the miners and the origin of several families who came to try their luck in the town. Here the Hispano-Mexican scientist Andrés Manuel del Río discovered vanadium, the only Mexican contribution to the periodic table of the elements , although a wrong investigation caused a Swedish researcher to take credit.
The geochemical wealth of the municipality has become a problem. “The most important source of arsenic is the interaction between water and rocks in the subsoil,” says María Aurora Armienta , head of the Institute of Geophysics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. There is arsenic from the exploitation of mines and chemical residues, but they are not the main causes. The problem is under the earth , says Armienta, who has been following the case for 25 years. “It is not a problem that has no solution, but society and the Government have to be vigilant,” says the researcher.
“In a week we get more or less 150 kilograms of iron, arsenic and other waste,” says José Arturo Espino, in charge of the three water treatment plants of the municipality, the largest territorially of the State of Hidalgo. In the last decade, Zimapán has undertaken an expensive fight against arsenic. The main plant, which treats water from El Muhí well, one of the most polluted, is named after Dr. Armienta and cost around 48 million pesos (about four million dollars at the 2011 exchange rate). An aquifer has also been built that brings clean water from an area near the neighboring municipality of Tasquillo.
But there is another problem: pipes. “The drinking water network is like the veins of a diabetic, with a thick layer of arsenic,” says former mayor José María Lozano. Water is treated and polluted again in the houses of the inhabitants. “We need about 250 million pesos (more than 12 million dollars) to address this problem,” says Rivera, who says he has knocked on the doors of the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the state and federal governments. “There is a lot of interest and willingness,” he says. The municipal authorities have compared and seek solutions similar to those in Bangladesh, where more than 20 million people are at risk of consuming water containing arsenic.
The fear of arsenic has raised the consumption of bottled water for drinking and cooking, but it is a luxury that not everyone has access to. More than half of the Zimapenses in 2010 earned less than two minimum wages per day, just over 100 pesos (less than five dollars), according to the latest census. A 20-liter jug can cost 30 pesos. The Moreno family drank water from the tap for almost 30 years, as was the custom, and a large part of the inhabitant’s shower and brush their teeth with that liquid or that they obtain from wells that are not always certified for human consumption.
Paradoxically, water is not lacking in the arid Zimapan. Just 22 kilometers from the municipal seat is El Infiernillo , an abundant well with good quality liquid, but a pipeline takes it to 120 kilometers to supply with 47.3 million cubic meters per year to the metropolitan area of Querétaro, a thriving industrial city. “I am not opposed to meeting the needs of other sides, but it does not seem fair that we are suffering from this problem,” laments Rivera.
An analysis conducted by Luz María del Razo from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies confirmed that exposure to arsenic in Zimapán and the Comarca Lagunera (in the north of the country) is associated with the high prevalence of diabetes in those areas. Diabetes is already the main cause of death in the municipality, according to data from the State Secretary of Health . But that information has not yet permeated between the inhabitants or the authorities. There are doubts. The WHO notes that arsenic affects the skin, causes gastrointestinal complications, damages the nervous system and can cause cardiovascular diseases and various types of cancer. But many of these diseases are multifactorial and diabetes, for example, is the main cause of death in thirty municipalities of Hidalgo.
Jorge Islas, former Secretary of State Health, declared in 2011 on the occasion of World Cancer Day that Zimapán and El Cardonal reported the highest rates of this disease in Hidalgo . Islas said that 108 minors had leukemia and 117 women had breast cancer. “Was it because of arsenic? Actually, we do not know, there is no follow-up of the clinical history when all the information is available to the authorities,” accuses a specialist who has studied for 20 years the environmental and health problems of the municipality, and he does not want to reveal his name. “Without follow-up, there can be no public policies,” he adds.
In Zimapan there is fear of fear. Some have heard things and are scared. Others prefer not to know. More than 25 years ago, when it was discovered accidentally during a campaign against cholera that there were high levels of arsenic, the government gave away jugs, closed several water intakes and collected samples of the population, remember its inhabitants, but did not know much more. “Surely they thought: ‘the well was closed, the problem was over’ and then the scientists told us that we were poisoning little by little,” says Nora Olivera, a retired teacher, and director of the local Red Cross. “How is it possible for outsiders to worry more about arsenic than we do?”, Moreno reflects and pauses: “I think it does not bother us because we do not know it.”
Source: EL PAIS
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