Birth Defects Plague Tiny California Town Fueled by Recent EPA Investigation, Activists Plan Door-to-Door Canvas for More Victims By SARAH NETTER - Feb. 8, 2010—
Emmanuel Alatorre Andrade is a happy baby.
At 20 months, he is doted on by his parents and his 4-year-old sister. But he's also at the center of a growing outcry among parents in a small central California town who fear industrial toxins are causing their children's birth defects.
Born with multiple facial deformities and missing part of his brain, Emmanuel is one of several children to have been born with severe birth defects in Kettleman City, Calif., a farming town state and federal health officials are now studying for possible environmental contamination at the request of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"There's something going on, we know," Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who is Emmanuel's cousin and spokeswoman for a group fighting for clean air and water in the town, told ABCNews.com. "There should have been a red flag raised a long time ago."
Heartened that their pleas for help are finally getting heard, mothers of the children have joined with groups of activists to go door-to-door through the largely Spanish-peaking town of 1,500 to find others who have experienced miscarriages or given birth to deformed children.
"My child died. I will never recover," Magdalena Romero told ABCNews.com. "But there will be many children in the future, and I don't want that to happen to other mothers."
The cause is still under investigation, and the state Department of Public Health is slated to release its area study findings Tuesday.
The town is home to Chemical Waste Management Inc., the largest toxic waste dump west of the Mississippi. There is also heavy pesticide use from the acres of farms that employ much of the town's work force and a highway with heavy truck traffic runs through the middle of town.
"I think it's primarily Chem Waste," Emmanuel's mother, Maura Alatorre, told ABCNews.com. "We are surrounded by so many things, but I think one of the main reasons is this plant."
Six children have been born in two years with similar birth defects. Four have since died. All had cleft palates along with a variety of other ailments that include facial deformities, heart and brain problems and limb defects.
A seventh baby, who died in the womb when her mother was six months along, was also found to have severe deformities. Anecdotal evidence suggests there may also be a high number of women who have endured miscarriages before the end of their first trimester.
"It feels like we've always been telling people the sky is falling, the sky is falling," Mares-Alatorre, a spokeswoman for the residential activist group People for Clean Air and Water for Kettleman City, said. "For these mothers, the sky fell."
Chemical Waste Management spokeswoman Kit Cole said that the company has been calling for studies into the birth defect issue since last summer, but that they do not believe its facility is responsible.
"We're very confident that we're protective of human health and the environment, and that our site is very, very safe," she said. Cole said routine inspections of the company's groundwater, air and soil have all come back clean. "But that doesn't negate the fact that these families deserve answers."
The company has reported no similar health problems among their workers and their pregnant employees have given birth to healthy babies, the company said. Cole also noted that the air blows from Kettleman City toward toward the landfill, not the other way around.
Residents say they were pleased with last week's visits by Environmental Protection Agency Regional Director Jared Blumenfeld. On the job for less than a month, he spoke with each of the mothers, met their children and looked at pictures of those who had died.
"It went very well. It was emotional," Mares-Alatorre said. "He promised the ladies in the community he would do his best."
Blumenfeld declined to be interviewed, but the EPA referred ABCNews.com to a statement he issued saying he now had an understanding of the families' concerns. He also toured the Chemical Waste Management facility and said, "They have indicated their support and willingness to work with EPA and the state to address any issues regarding their facility."
Close-Knit Town Devastated by Birth Defects Kettleman City is a close-knit town. Many residents are related or consider one another close enough to be family. A large portion of the residents are either immigrants or descendants from the same Mexican enclave. Most of the residents do not speak English.
"It's like the Mayberry syndrome. Everybody knows each other," Mares-Alatorre said. "If my kid misbehaves across town, 20 minutes later, I'll know about it."
There is little serious crime, and many of the families attend church regularly. Yet poverty is everywhere and, according to Mares-Alatorre, only 17 percent of the residents have a high school diploma.
The closest town is 37 miles away, and because many people don't have cars, they use a public transport system to get basic supplies that are too expensive in the few convenience stores in town.
Ana Martinez, a community organizer with Greenaction for Health and Justice, which has spearheaded the fight for attention in Kettleman City, told ABCNews.com that she first worked on a door-to-door campaign two years ago when they started hearing stories of babies being born with severe deformities.
The next door-to-door campaign will begin, she said, in the next few weeks.
"Some women, they are scared to come out and tell us or embarrassed to tell us they had a miscarriage," she said. "It's something very personal for them."
Al Lundeen, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said that they were first notified about a possible defect cluster in 2008 and that Kings County health officer Michael MacLean was given the information in January 2009.
The health department has not been out to Kettleman City to speak with the families but have spoken to many of them over the phone, he said.
Some residents are angry, Martinez said, after local health officials told them that the number of babies born with defects wasn't high enough to sound the alarm.
In December, six weeks before Schwarzenegger's call for an investigation, MacLean told the Los Angeles Times that he understood the concern, and that officials would watch for more cases.
"But most of the time, when we are talking about small numbers such as these, they are just random occurrences," he told the Times.
Cole said the issue has become very emotionally and politically charged, partially because of the two decades of tension between Chemical Waste Management and Greenaction, which accuse each other of distorting facts.
"At times, I think, the activists turn this into a fingerpointing and fundraising exercise," Cole said. "That's too bad."
But the mothers said they know something was causing these problems.
"We carried photos of the babies," Romero said of their visits to the county. "They didn't pay us any attention."
Mothers Devastated by Children's Deaths, Worry About Future Births Romero's daughter America died in February 2008, less than five months after she was born with a cleft palate, facial deformities, Down syndrome and heart problems. Ten months later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
"I was very afraid. I didn't want another baby," she told ABCNews.com. "I was thinking of not having another."
Mares-Alatorre said giving birth to a deformed baby is a heartbreaking event. Emmanuel, she said, was born with a cleft palate and his nose was split down the middle. He's also missing a portion of his left brain, which causes problems on his right side.
"He has issues with balance and he shakes. He has a lot of accidents. He falls a lot," Mares-Alatorre said. "Every time I see him, he has new bruises on his face."
After he was born, his parents were questioned about whether cleft palates ran in their family. They didn't.
"They asked her if she lived near pesticides," Mares-Alatorre said. "They are a really clean-living couple. They work out, they don't drink, they don't smoke. They really wanted answers."
Maura Alatorre stays home to care for her children, and her husband works as a farm laborer. They drive Emmanuel, who has already had a couple of surgeries to correct his facial deformities, more than an hour away for therapy and appointments with specialists.
Alatorre, who is 26 and has a healthy older daughter along with Emmanuel, said she is not planning to have any more children.
"It makes me afraid, because I don't know what will happen," she said. "Thank God my children are alive, but truly, I don't want to have this happen again."
It's a fear that has gripped many of the women in the town.
Lizbeth Canales said she would like to have another child, but is still reeling from the death of her unborn daughter, Maria Guadalupe. Canales' daughter was the seventh baby known to have defects.
She has only recently begun sharing her story, speaking out for the first time publicly last week when the EPA visited with the mothers.
"My mom was the one who encouraged me to go the meetings. She said, 'You know, we still live here,'" she said. "We don't want them to go through what I did."
Kettleman City Mother: 'All We Want is Clean Air and Water' Canales, also mother to a healthy 4-year-old boy, was six months pregnant when her doctor failed to detect a fetal heartbeat. She was sent home and told to expect contractions to expel the fetus. Instead she was gripped by searing pain and rushed to the emergency room, vomiting blood.
Waking up in the intensive care unit, she was told her appendix had burst and infection had spread throughout her body. When she asked about the baby, the nurse's response shocked her.
The unborn girl, who she had planned to name Maria, was badly deformed. "Both of her feet was going to be clubbed and one of her hands. She had heart problems and her head was not fully developed."
Romero, she said, was by her side constantly, having lost her daughter the previous year.
"Probably in the future I will want to have another one. I am scared because I am going to be worried if it's going to come out OK or if she's going to be OK. I'm always going to have a fear she's going to come out the same way Maria did," she said. "I want them to study the water, the air so we can have an answer to our questions and a solution to our problem."
Some of the residents say they want to leave Kettleman City. Others are bound by family obligations and fear that their undocumented status will cause problems if they try to settle elsewhere.
Romero and her husband are among those who have considered leaving town. They've lived in Kettleman City for 14 years.
"We knew that the dump was here with the toxic waste, but I didn't know it would harm us. I didn't know it was possible," she said. "I had my other children, and they're all healthy and suddenly the baby was born this way."
So for now, they try to do the best they can to keep their families healthy.
Alatorre said they drive up to 40 minutes to buy bottled water for drinking because the tap water smells and is not clear.
"I used to use it to wash fruits, to cook. I didn't know we shouldn't use it," she said. "But after my son was born, I said, 'No, I can't use this water.'"
Residents successfully petitioned against Chemical Waste Management's proposal to accept radioactive waste, but last month People for Clean Air and Water and Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice jointly filed a lawsuit to challenge the county's approval of a expansion of the landfill.
"If they make it bigger, imagine!" Alatorre said. "We're asking only that they don't expand. We're not asking for money or anything else. All we want is clean air and water."
ABC News' Suzan Clarke contributed to this report.