02-19-2017  10:39 pm      •     

Editor's note: The following article is and excerpt from Part 4 of "Pollution, Poverty, People of Color," by Environmental Health News. Click here to read full versions of the articles in this series. 



EAST OROSI, Calif.–Jessica Sanchez sits on the edge of her seat in her mother's kitchen, hands resting on her bulging belly. Eight months pregnant, she's excited about the imminent birth of her son. But she's scared too.



A few feet away, her mother, Bertha Dias, scrubs potatoes with water she bought from a vending machine. She won't use the tap water because it's contaminated with nitrates.



Every day, Dias, 43, heads to the fields to pick lemons or oranges, lugging a ladder so she can reach the treetops. She often skips lunch to save money for the $17.50 she needs each week to fill jugs with vending-machine water.



Blue-Baby Syndrome



Four years ago, the family learned that it had nitrates in its drinking water, which Sanchez drank as a little girl. She started speaking out about her town's toxic water when she discovered that nitrates can cause "blue baby syndrome," a potentially fatal blood disorder that cuts off an infant's oxygen supply.



"Now it really hits me," she said, "because now it's my baby."



Sanchez, 18, who graduated from high school last year, lives in East Orosi, a square parcel carved out of 160 acres of land in Tulare County surrounded by orchards in the shadow of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Fewer than 500 people, nearly all Latino, live in this long-neglected town with no sidewalks, street lights, parks or playgrounds. More than half live below the poverty level.



The struggle to find clean drinking water has become a way of life for the residents of East Orosi. But they're not alone. Like a growing number of California's poor people, they're paying for water that's not fit to drink.

One in 10 Californians  in two major agricultural regions pays high rates for well water that's laced with nitrates, pesticides and other pollutants. Most are low-income Latinos; many speak only Spanish.



Public health researcher Carolina Balazs suspected that nitrate-tainted water was an environmental justice problem, so she examined the contamination along with income and ethnicity in small public water systems in eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley.



She found that nearly 5,200 people had drinking water that exceeded federal nitrate standards, and half were Latino. Another 449,000, more than 40 percent Latino, had medium levels that ranged from just under the limit to half the maximum allowed.



"It was in the small systems with highly Latino populations where the nitrate levels were the highest," said Balazs, lead author of research at the University of California, Berkeley, that was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives last September.



EPA: Towns Are "Serious Violators"



The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers the water systems in East Orosi, nearby Seville and seven other Tulare County towns "serious violators" of federal safe drinking water standards. In the past three years, these systems exceeded safety levels for coliform bacteria, nitrates, or arsenic at least nine times. East Orosi and Seville violated nitrate standards 12 times.



Nitrates are byproducts of nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers, animal manure, septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants. Farmers douse crops with nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth, to boost yields.



California's $37.5 billion farming industry has led the nation in food production for more than 50 years. The state has known for decades that nitrate contamination has been a cost of that productivity. But now, state officials know the primary sources of contamination, just how extensive it is and who's shouldering the burden.



Nitrates jeopardize the drinking water of 254,000 people out of the 2.6 million who rely on ground water in  the Central Valley's Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley, according to a University of California, Davis study commissioned by the state Legislature and released in March. Agriculture accounts for 96 percent of that contamination.



The number of people exposed will likely grow. It can take decades for nitrates to travel from the soil surface to ground water.



"We know we can't stop all sources tomorrow and that there will be a time lag until we get the situation under control," said Thomas Harter, a ground water hydrologist who led the UC Davis study. "We will definitely see an increase in nitrate contamination over the next 10 or 20 years."



Hidden Hazards



Jessica Sanchez fills a glass from the tap and holds it up to the light. The water appears cloudy, almost opaque, as particles swirl around. After a few minutes, the particles settle, and the water looks normal.



That's precisely the trouble, water activists say. You can't see or taste nitrates. "If you have sulfur or manganese in your water, it looks brown and gross and you quit drinking it before it poisons you," said Jennifer Clary, a policy analyst with Clean Water Action. "But with nitrates, you don't."



Nitrates become toxic when bacteria in saliva and the gut convert them to nitrites, which in turn convert hemoglobin into methemoglobin, which can't deliver oxygen to tissues. Babies are vulnerable in part because their immature stomachs harbor abundant nitrite-producing bacteria.



Affected infants have trouble breathing and develop cyanosis, a blue-gray or purple tint to their skin, giving methemoglobinemia its common name, blue baby syndrome. Left untreated, babies develop brain damage, and eventually suffocate. Studies have linked high nitrate exposures in adults with miscarriage, digestive disorders, thyroid damage and cancer.



Health experts worry that people don't know about the risks and that doctors may not consider nitrate exposure in their diagnoses.

Mark Miller, MD, used to treat patients in Chico, in the northern Central Valley, where some wells had nitrate levels 10 to 15 times higher than the federal standard.



"But there was no awareness among clinicians and no effort from public health authorities to check wells and inform people about this hazard," said Miller, director of the state's Children's Environmental Health Program and head of the University of California, San Francisco Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit.



The majority of the at-risk residents get their water from public systems, many of which rely on a single well. East Orosi has two public wells and both regularly have unsafe nitrate levels. Managers of the town's volunteer water board – the East Orosi Community Services District – did not respond to repeated requests for comment.



Water Rates for the Rich



For years, Dias, Sanchez's mother, had to buy bottled water for her kids to take to school, on top of the water she bought for her home.



Dias makes $7.50 an hour picking fruit, and pays $60 a month for her tap water and up to $75 a month to fill jugs with water from a vending machine. That's nearly five times more than the average San Franciscan, who earns about $45,000 a year and pays just $28 a month for some of the nation's best tap water, drawn from Sierra Nevada snowmelt.



"If you looked at people's water rates, you'd think we were rich," said Susana De Anda, co-founder of the Visalia-based nonprofit Community Water Center. "The reality is that we're making sacrifices just to have safe drinking water in the home."



Environmental Health News is a foundation-funded environmental news service. EHN publishesits own enterprise journalism and provides daily access to worldwide environmental news.

Recently Published by The Skanner News

  • Default
  • Title
  • Date
  • Random
  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
    Read More
  • FDR executive order sent 120,000 Japanese immigrants and citizens into camps
    Read More
  • Pruitt's nomination was strongly opposed by environmental groups and hundreds of former EPA employees
    Read More
load morehold SHIFT key to load allload all