State Report Fails to Find Underlying Cause of Kettleman City Birth Defects; Activists Demand Further Action

After nearly a year of investigating the cluster of birth defects in Kettleman City, state environmental agencies have completed a draft report on the cause of the problem. Their conclusion was that no common factor could be found to explain why there were 11 babies born with a cleft palate and other developmental problems, including three who died, in this rural town of 1,500 souls during the three-year period from 2007 to 2010.

Dr. Kevin Reilly, chief deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, was the lead agency in the investigation. He summarizes that investigators “were not able to find any common cause for the birth defects, the increases that were found in 2008 and 2009. At the same time, we took a look at the cancer issues and found that the Kettleman City community did not suffer rates that were higher than the rest of the state. There were not unusual types of cancer or higher rates; except in one situation we found that children from zero to 14 years of age in the Census tract that includes Kettleman City had five cases of cancer over our review period.”

The report has been harshly criticized by advocacy groups working with the community. According to Bradley Angel of Greenaction, the report is inadequate and the methods used were flawed. “Contrary to repeated public claims made by state officials in Kettleman City on December 2, 2010, that the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] conducted one year of continuous PCB air monitoring in 2009, the U.S. EPA has informed me that they did not conduct one year or even one day of PCB air monitoring next to Chem Waste [Chemical Waste Management Inc.] or Kettleman City in 2009. Nor did the EPA even get split samples.”

Angel suggests that the state should do another study, “This misinformation provided by state officials was either a lie or just incompetence, but either way once again demonstrated the bias of agencies who seem quick to defend Chem Waste even though the facts contradict these unfounded and incorrect claims.”

Among other investigatory oversights, Greenaction charges that the state did not even consider the illegal disposal of radioactive waste at the facility. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control claims that it has not found any information regarding that waste. The dumping of “lightly contaminated” radioactive material from Boeing’s Rocketdyne Division originally came to light in a Los Angeles Times article dated June 12, 2000, and was confirmed by that company.

The report was also criticized by Maricela Mares Allatore of the local group People for Clean Air and Water. “We feel the study was incomplete because there wasn’t any biomonitoring done. There was not a sampling of tissue or blood [of the mothers], so if they really wanted to find out what was in the bodies of these women that had these children, then they should have done that.”

However, Dr. Reilly defends the study explaining that it was thorough and comprehensive. “Biomonitoring would be helpful if we had a target chemical that we were looking at. We looked very closely at a number of possible risk factors and exposures. We ran the gamut from family history to things that may have happened during pregnancy. Just day-to-day things like what these families ate on a regular basis, what kind of exercise, what kinds of medication. We looked at where they worked. We looked at the entire gamut of what factors could have impacted these moms during pregnancy that may have resulted in these birth defects.”

Dr. Daniel Wartenberg is a nationally recognized expert in environmental epidemiology who was contracted by the U.S. EPA to assist in the study. Even he is not convinced that the state took the best approach to find the cause of the birth defects, “One of the things that has bothered me about how this whole thing has moved forward is that we know there are things out there that are bad, that are dangerous to people’s health and they’re not dealing with them.

“They are trying to show an association, that’s what’s in the headlines, and that’s not where you start, in my view. Those are very hard to do, they’re often negative, which doesn’t mean there is not an association. It’s just that the methodology is not the best, it’s not that precise. But we know that the stuff in the water is bad for people, we know the stuff in the air is bad for people, we know that pesticides cause disease. Why aren’t we dealing with that?”

For many years, activists have pointed to the nearby toxic waste landfill operated by Chem Waste as a possible cause for the health problems faced by Kettleman City families. The company has been cited for violations in its handling of PCBs, a known carcinogen. Recently, it was fined more than $300,000 by the U.S. EPA.

For more than a year, the company has been trying to obtain a state permit to expand the facility. But Allatore does not think Chem Waste should be allowed to go ahead just yet, “Before [the state should] even consider handing them a permit to take in even more, they need to scrutinize them because they are not the safe company they are made out to be.”

Not everyone in Kettleman City blames the company for the birth defects. At a meeting the state held in the community on December 2, Aurora Solis said that her 42-year-old brother was born with a cleft palate—several years before the landfill existed. “As an employee of Waste Management, I know my site is safe. If I thought for any minute that Waste Management would harm me or my community, I wouldn’t be working there.

“What I would like to ask you today is to get to the bottom of this. I feel impacted by the families that have been affected by all this. I feel that this community, our employees, and my company deserve the facts and not made-up rumors by activist groups.”

One thing everyone at the meeting agreed with is that the water in Kettleman City is problematic. Many people complained that water from the town’s well smells and tastes bad. Most residents drink bottled water, including the mothers of the children with birth defects. Like many small towns in the valley, the groundwater contains arsenic that is above federal regulatory standards. That is one problem the state is ready and willing to deal with. State officials have promised to help the community obtain funding to improve the infrastructure and provide clean water.

State environmental agencies promise they will continue to monitor environmental conditions in the area. But beyond any possible impact the toxic waste dump may have on Kettleman City’s environment, this community, like many other rural Central Valley towns, is swimming in a toxic soup of contaminated water and polluted air. Recognizing that fact, Allatore insists that the state should concentrate on the big picture. “One of the things we’re concerned about is cumulative impacts. We know that when a company proposes a project, they have to do an EIR report. They have to tell you ‘Oh this little bit is not going to hurt you, and this little bit will affect one in a million.’

“Nobody is ever responsible what this bit over here and this bit over there are going to do to your body. Nobody is held responsible in that way. They need to enforce that. They need to really take a hard look and see, because you can’t say that you’re only affected by one thing when there are so many things in the environment.”

Speaking specifically about the pain endured by the families of Kettleman City, Allatore admonishes state investigators to stay focused on finding answers, “Now they need to take it all the way. They can’t just leave the mothers hanging like that and say, ‘Oh, you know it’s normal—sorry.’”

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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