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Tuesday, January 23, 2001 A Publication of the Newspeak Association Volume No. 66, Issue 2

Front Page
-George W. Bush becomes president
-WPI publishes new magazine for west coast alumni
-The Best of Sacred Concerts performs at WPI
-WPI named leadership institution
-Scots on the Rocks: Check it out

News
-Massachusetts physicists bring light to a stop, then send it on its way
-Collegiate Entrepreneurs organization planning entrepreneurship fair
-Romanians hospitalized after eating cyanide-contaminated fish
-Pumpkin-shaped balloon to usher in new dawn of near space research
-Scientists seek pollution link in border birth defects
-Police Log

Opinions
-What will Bush's legacy be?
-The Philler
-The Little Things...
-Visions

Letters to the Editor
-It's my turn to rant and rave
-In the Defense of Burger King

International House
-Celebrating MLK, Jr.

Arts & Entertainment
-Anime
-Person on the Street
-What's Happening

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Sports
-Women's basketball returns to their winning ways
-Steve Horsman signs with Orioles
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-Score Board
-Upcoming Contests

Scientists seek pollution link in border birth defects


Courtesy of the Associated Press

This living room is thick with the ghosts of Norma's days.

Here she's watched her three children squirm, snack and stretch on the rug in a bath of filtered sunlight. She listens to her neighbor's roosters squawk, hears loads of Mexican cargo rumble through town on the train tracks striping her street. When 2-month-old Jacob fusses in his crib, she pulls him into her lap and he slips back to sleep.

This house has seen hurtful days, too. Back in 1993, Norma and Gilbert Olvera's baby girl died 16 hours after birth. The child developed with a neural tube defect, and was born without a brain. Clustered within the sanitized hospital walls, the family snapped pictures and gave her a name. Amy Keiko means beloved and adored.

After her daughter died, Norma came home, sat in her living room and waited. First she waited for the numbness to thaw. Then she waited for the tears to stop. Finally, she waited for answers. They never came.

"At first that's all you can think, 'Why this?' and 'Why that?"' says Norma, 32. '"Why did God let this happen?"'

It's been 10 years since doctors first noticed the abnormally high number of babies born with neural tube defects in the Rio Grande Valley. During a 36-hour span in 1991, three babies were born in the same hospital. Different mothers, different homes. All victims of defective neural tubes.

The vicious defects are a direct strike to the nervous system, the brain and spine. The luckier babies suffer spinal deformities or protruding backbones. Anencephalic babies are born without brains or with underdeveloped brains, and die.

During the worst times, in 1991, babies in Cameron County were born with neural tube defects at a rate three times higher than the national average. That spike was followed by another in 1998.

Pollution is widely believed to have contributed to the birth defects. Was it poisoned water or chemicals in the air? Sinister dust that spilled from the cluster of Mexican factories? The clouds of pesticides billowing from the tails of crop dusters? Industrial waste surging to the Atlantic in the current of the Rio Grande?

After a decade of fear, suspicion and study, hundreds of mothers on both sides of the border still wait for answers. Science so far has been unable to tell them why their babies were fatally deformed.

And the heartbreak continues. In 1998-99, an average of 13 babies per every 10,000 live births in the 14 Texas border counties suffered neural tube defects, said Peter Langlois, senior epidemiologist with the Texas Birth Defect Monitoring Division. That's roughly double the estimated national average of 6.71 per 10,000 live births in 1995-97, the most recent available figure.

For seven years, Dr. Irina Cech has been poring over biological samples, straining to link pollution to the family tragedies. The University of Houston researcher's mission is clear: to bring closure to a decade of anguish.

"We need evidence. Not emotion or suspicion, but hard, factual evidence," Cech says firmly. "Right now there's very little to go on except anecdotes."

She depends on border obstetricians, who urge women with NTD fetuses to participate in her study. So far, more than 400 pregnant women have contributed biological samples to Cech's laboratory.

She examines fluids, snips hair from the mother, draws blood from the umbilical cord. The hair, she believes, is the most significant scrap of evidence, a single strand offers a lasting chemical record. She searches for viruses, for mercury and lead and arsenic. She screens for chlorine, organic metals and PCBs.

She's also interested in the mothers' houses and trailers. Cech has gathered chunks of soil, vials of water and tubes of gas from 160 homes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Aided by the Environmental Protection Agency, Cech inspects the homes for traces of fecal material, volatile organic chemicals, nitrates and uranium decay products _ clues that indicate hazardous dump sites, pesticides or sewage runoff.

She's hunting for a pattern, a trend. In the process, she's creating one of the largest environmental databases ever collected from Rio Grande Valley households. Until she finishes analyzing her data, Cech won't discuss her findings.

"There's reason for suspecting pollution in the area," Cech said, rattling off the environmental risks. "The region developed very fast, the infrastructure was behind. Maquilas came to the area with little environmental control of waste material disposal. Then there's the agricultural activity. ..."

This is not just the story of damaged fetuses and family anguish. It's the tale of chilling suspicion lingering in rural, poor towns along the nation's edge: That people are being silently, invisibly poisoned.

It's a terrifying notion, toxins seeping in the soil or dripping from the faucet, quiet and lethal, making babies sick in the womb.

In March 1993, grieving families sued General Motors and other American owners of about 40 factories operating in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville. The families blamed airborne poisons puffing from the maquiladoras for the birth defects.

In 1995, the companies paid $17 million to settle the suit. They didn't admit wrongdoing, but suspicion festered.

Brownsville lawyer David Olveira specializes in defending companies against environmental lawsuits. He has witnessed the distrust and vilification of industry in the courtrooms of South Texas, a farming pocket steadily morphing into a sprawl of factories and warehouses.

"There is a lot of suspicion among folks from all walks of life, and a lot of it, I think, is unsubstantiated," Olveira said. "But it makes it hard to go before a jury."

The birth defect rash coincided with dramatic years of change along the nation's southern border. In 1991, as doctors began to puzzle over the birth patterns, former President Bush was striking up negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico. The border's modern era was about to begin.

Harlingen obstetrician Miguel Cintron has been treating neural tube defects for years, but asked their cause, he hesitates.

"I think it may be environmental," he finally says.

"But," he adds quickly, "we have to be very careful when we say that. It gets very political when you start saying things like we're too close to Mexico, or when you blame business."

If you ask Norma, it was the pink pond behind her mother's house. That's where she was staying when Amy was conceived.

Nobody knew why it was pink, but there it was. Pink like a cartoon. In her family, it was almost a joke.

It didn't seem so funny after Amy died. Worse yet a few years later, when a neighbor lost her baby to an NTD.

"Just like you," Norma's mother said. "I knew it."

The family may soon get an answer. Water siphoned from the pond is among the samples being analyzed in Cech's laboratory.

Talk to researchers and mothers; doctors and neighbors. They aren't likely to agree on much. The quest for a cause splinters under the weight of defensiveness, grief and guilt.

EPA researcher Hal Zenick recalls the tearful public meetings of the 1990s, where shellshocked families demanded answers. He remembers their theories: the corn, the water, the factory pollution.

"Everybody in the community has a different speculation," he said. "You could deplete a federal budget trying to go after all of it."

In the early 1990s, the EPA examined household samples for industrial taint. But only nine homes were studied, all on the northern bank of the Rio Grande. The agency found elevated levels of pesticides, PCBs and arsenic, and recommended more studies be done.

The state health department stepped in, and the EPA contributed money to those tests. But cash ran low, and the state ended up storing urine and serum samples instead of finishing pollution laboratory work.

"Those tests are quite expensive. They're harder to do," Texas Department of Health neural tube investigator Kate Hendricks said. "We're still hoping to look at environmental exposure."

Since 1991, Texas has spent between $3 million and $4 million hunting for a cause to the NTDs, Langlois said.

Most daunting of all, researchers acknowledge they may never identify a chemical culprit. The mystery may never be solved.

"You've got environment and diet and most of these people live in low-income housing," Zenick said. "Tracing the clues is nearly impossible."

For the time being, doctors have turned their attention to teaching the benefits of folic acid, which appears to help prevent neural tube defects.

Norma has borne three healthy children. She and Gilbert found Jesus on a weekend camping trip, started filling their nights with prayer meetings.

They've faced down unemployment, childbirth, family upheavals.

Norma weeps sometimes for her lost girl, still stares at the cracked wall on what would have been Amy's birthday. But somewhere along the way, Norma stopped asking why.

"God let it happen and I've accepted that," she says. "All of my questions aren't going to bring that baby back."


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