On The Brink
issue 157 | March 1986
On the brink
In 1972. Brazilian officials told the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) that 'Poverty is the worst pollution' and that Brazil's answer was to develop its industrial base as rapidly as possible (and with as few safeguards as possible) so that poor Brazilians would benefit. The costs have been disastrous for Brazil's poor. In 1982 at UNEP meetings in Nairobi the country was identified as the world's worst polluter. And one region. Cubatao. has been dubbed 'the Valley of Death'. Just an hour or so away from Sao Paulo's chic downtown area. Cubatao is the home of Latin America's biggest petrochemical complex. According to recent studies by health officials, the infant mortality rate in Cubatao is significantly higher than anywhere else in the country. About 8 per cent of all children born in the area suffer from abnormalities such as spinal problems and missing bones.
Vila Parisi is a crowded Cubatao slum of 15.000 residents. The town is boxed in on its four sides by a steel plant a fertiliser factory, a cement works and a mountain wall. There are about 30 major industrial facilities in the vicinity.
The slum, which lies below sea level, experiences, severe and frequent flooding when the open sewers overflow into the muddy streets, The local rivers are laced with toxic wastes, detergents and other industrial pollutants. Dead fish are common and many of the fish that do survive are born blind and skeletally deformed.
A 1981 study found that the residents of Vila Parisi lived under a barrage of air pollutants: 473 tons a day of carbon monoxide. 182 tons a day of sulphur. 148 tons of polluted dust and particles and 41 tons of nitrogen oxide. Doctors who examined members of the Vila Parisi population in 1983 found that 44 per cent had some kind of lung disease. Another study of infant mortality found that 12 in every 10,000 babies were born without brains - three times the national average.
But until the Brazilian government takes pollution control seriously, the only reductions in pollution levels come as a result of the cutbacks in production and employment that go hand-in-glove with recession. Residents face a hollow trade off: jobs at the cost of rampant pollution or pollution controls at the cost of jobs. It is a cruel choice. It is made all the more harsh because the slum dwellers are powerless to choose which option they would prefer, And of course they are in no position to demand a different solution: both jobs and a clean environment.
Toronto's South Riverdale neighbourhood has features which are characteristic of the world's poor urban communities: it is the locus of most of the city's industry. Two of Canada's major detergent factories nestle within its boundaries, exuding their cloying perfume smells. Rendering plants and an oil-reprocessing factory add to the stink though whether the smells alone indicate a health hazard is not clear.
But there is little doubt that one of the neighbourhood's oldest polluters, the Canada Metal Company, has been a major health threat Canada Metal set up shop 60 years ago, choosing South Riverdale for the same reasons industry usually locates in poorer neighbourhoods: cheap land and residents so eager to work they won't complain about a factory in their backyard.
No one did complain, at least not until 1972. Then it was learned that the company had long been discharging lead exhausts 10 to 80 times the legal limit. A quick survey sent three people to hospital with acute poisoning, and found that 13 per cent of the children tested had lead levels high enough to cause serious health problems. Soil from land around the plant was contaminated with 40 times the normal concentration of lead.
South Riverdale residents began to organise, complaining that the government would never tolerate such pollution in Toronto's wealthy suburbs. In 1979 the company was finally charged by the province's environment ministry and given a suspended sentence 'due to its fine citizenship since 1925'. 'Lead emissions have been in line with standards since then,' admitted Maureen McDonnell, a local resident and member of the lead clean-up committee, 'but the problems are not over yet'. She became involved in the issue when her own children were found to have unacceptably high blood-lead levels. 'In 1984 we found that almost 20 per cent of the kids in the area nearest the plant still had seriously high lead levels,' said McDonnell. Contaminated soil is probably the source, and residents want the government to replace it with healthy earth.
With the neighbourhood problem slowly being resolved, the committee has turned its attention to getting the lead out of gasoline, the major source of lead pollution. The health centre's experience with Canada Metal has made it a force to be reckoned with. The federal government, currently debating the leaded gasoline issue, has recognised with some trepidation 'the pioneer role played by the centre in calling public attention to lead pollution'.
Colombia is rich in water supply but poor in pollution control of that water. Diseases related to contaminated water are the main cause of death in children up to 14 years old. Many people use completely untreated water, taking it directly from rivers. Apart from sewage. industrial and agricultural effluents are discharged into the country's water systems. The River Bogota is one of the most polluted in the world. Yet as it threads its way through the countryside, the poor must draw its black, foam-covered water for cooking. It stinks of sewage and chemicals from the leather and sugar cane industries. And Colombia's main export - coffee - is a major culprit. Noted for its characteristic gentle aroma. Colombian coffee beans are washed in river water during preparation. The resulting effluent contains a bouquet of contaminants - tannin, caffeine. hydrochloric acid, calcium, potassium and polyphenyls (industrial chemicals). Washing 1 kg (about 2 Ibs) of coffee creates as much river pollution as the sewage of three people. Colombia produces 540.000 tonnes of coffee a year, so one year's coffee harvest causes as much river pollution as the sewage of 1.600 million people.
As well as using this water for washing. cooking and drinking, the poorer people also eat the few fish which survive. These fish are often suffering from sores and septicaemia: the unsightly parts of diseased flesh are cut off by market traders. Although some government agencies in Colombia are acting to improve sanitation and water supply, the stark fact remains that 16 million people - two thirds of the population - consume contaminated water.
The fish in Jakarta Bay are contaminated with effluvia from over 2,000 factories. And the people worst affected are the poor who live on the Bay's edges, feeding on the fish. Aside from cancer and other health problems, people there are affected by Minimata disease - named after an outbreak of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastes in Minimata Bay, Japan. The irony in Jakarta Bay is that the six worst mercury polluters are Japanese companies.
In 1979 pollution from Mitsubishi's factory in Tapak village destroyed the fish ponds and rice paddies upon which the villagers had depended. Damages exceeded US $1 2.000 but the company was fined only US $5,000. The factory still operates and the villagers have been forced to take labouring jobs paying less than US $0.45 a day - below the Indonesian government's poverty threshold,
Besides the fear of losing foreign investment, the government has other more personal reasons for tolerating deadly pollution. Two years ago, a DDT-formulating company was established in Citeureup Bogor village as a joint US/Indonesian venture. In the first year 25 people, mostly children, died from a mysterious illness that began with fever, skin discoloration, loss of appetite and spitting up blood. All of these symptoms are compatible with DDT poisoning. Testing revealed excessive levels of DDT contamination in the soil, well water and rice fields surrounding the factory. But the government insisted that the deaths were due to bronchial pneumonia. Last year, another 20 people died from the same illness and the government repeated its diagnosis.
'The problem' complained Jakarta lawyer Achmad Santosa 'is that one of the factory's owners is President Suharto's son.'
In the US today it is the poor who bear the brunt of the human costs of industrial pollution, And some of the worst cases of exposure of poor Americans to dangerous pollutants and toxics occurs in rural areas. Take toxic dumps. Nobody really wants one on their doorstep, and the wealthier and better informed communities have been able to protest the siting of such facilities too close to home. So industry has turned to new dump sites in sparsely populated areas - generally in the southern states.
Emelle, Alabama, is one such place. It's a small town located in one of the poorest states in the nation, in Sumter County. Sixty-nine per cent of Sumter County families live below the official poverty line. Seven out of ten residents are black. Illiteracy and unemployment are high. In 1977 residents watched bulldozers clear an area for what they thought might be a new factory. Before long, however, they realised that the new facility was a toxic waste dump.
The Emelle dump is the world's largest. Waste from 45 of the 50 states is transported and dumped there - not all of it legally. In recent years, despite the state's assurances that no acutely toxic chemicals would be dumped at the site, residents have become aware of the dumping of benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and possibly dioxins - hazardous substances with effects ranging from skin disorders to birth defects. PCBs have leaked out from the dump, killing fish.
Afraid for their health and furious that there was never any consultation, residents have begun to organise. But they are meeting stern resistance of a kind which sheds light on the politics of toxic waste disposal in the United States, For example, the owner of the waste disposal site is also the mayor of the county seat of Sumter County. He is the general counsel for both the company operating the facility. Chemical Waste Management, and the county, One of the principals in the waste site is the son-in-law of George Wallace, governor of Alabama.
And as citizens fight for better monitoring and public information, the trucks continue to tip their lethal loads into the rural dump, But maybe not for much longer. Recently a film crew from CBS television came to Emelle to research the story. The previously powerless residents hope that a news report on national combined with their mounting pressure on officialdom will reduce the risks. And if successful, they will provide a model for other rural Southern counties, of which there are many facing the same public health and political challenges.
Talking of the need for US military bases in the Pacific, Henry Kissinger once remarked: 'There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?' The political powerlessness of small island peoples in Micronesia not only encouraged the US, Britain and France to conduct nuclear tests there but today makes nuclear waste dumping in the Pacific an attractive option. As plutonium nuclear waste accumulates from industry and power stations, governments are turning to the idea of flushing their nuclear excreta into the marine environment on which Pacific Islanders depend. Ocean dumping appeals because it is cheap, irreversible, and avoids the domestic citizen resistance that would occur if the rich countries tried to dump nuclear waste on their own territories. Unfortunately, according to marine ecologists, sea-dumped nuclear waste is upwardly mobile: it works its way up the food chain and ends up in the seafood on which many islanders depend.
Despite their economic dependence on the West. many island leaders are passionately against this 'nuclear colonialism', As Vanuatu's Barak Sope puts it, 'In the past the colonialists wanted our labour, so they kidnapped us. Then they wanted our land, so they stole it for their plantations. Now they want our sea for the dumping of nuclear waste, testing of nuclear missiles and passage of nuclear submarines.
'I will only believe (there is no risk) when Japanese scientists decide to dump their nuclear wastes in Tokyo Bay. We can detect the colonial mentality that complements the nuclear mentality. That is, it is safe enough for these natives or islanders, but not safe enough for us, so let's keep the colonies and keep on testing, or grab more ocean and dump some more nuclear waste,'
The industrialised countries will have a fight on their hands. The poor of Micronesia are joining together to resist nuclear dumping, and becoming more powerful in the process.