November 19, 2004

Central Valley Town Suffers High Cancer Rates, With No Explanation

By Miguel Angel Baez

MCFARLAND. - Many children in McFarland are losing their most basic right: The right to live and be happy.

Dozens of children suffer from some type of cancer or birth defects. Since the first cases in 1983, until now, the problem continues to be grave and exasperating for parents and cruel to children.

In 1983, Teresa Buentello, 3, and Randy Rosales, 14, were diagnosed with cancer. After another case was found in the community, various McFarland parents, among them Connie Rosales, Randy’s mother, started to investigate and demand a response from authorities.

Their calls were amplified when Teresa Buentello died at the age of four.

Today, more than 20 years after Buentello’s death, McFarland residents still do not have a concrete answer about the sickness and death of young people in this locality 20 miles north of Bakersfield. Or rather, they have an answer, but it satisfies no one.

On Nov. 8, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presented the results of the final phase of a study in which it examined the ground, drinking water, and air.

In the report issued last week, Bruni Davila, in charge of the air quality investigation, said that in a study of 147 chemicals taken from more than 900 samples, the results were below dangerous levels.

“All of the chemicals are within the protected range,” Davila said, though he adds that that people should take the necessary precautions during outdoor activities when air quality is not good.

In earlier studies, the EPA, a government agency, had examined the ground and potable water and according to its reports did not find elements that put health at risk.

Happiness and Innocence

Julian Soto is an unquiet, playful, loving child. Just before the EPA’s informative session, Julian played with a tennis ball, running from one side of the school auditorium to the other. He is just four years old. At first look, judging by his energy, it is difficult to think Julian can be a sick child. He seems like a healthy boy, full of life.

Nevertheless, the reality is otherwise.

Julian suffers a cancerous brain tumor. It was diagnosed when he was only two years old and, at that early age, Julian had to undergo terrible chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“It cannot be hereditary,” said Elizabeth Soto, Julian’s mother. “It is a tumor that shows up in one out of every 10,000 children.” She and her spouse, Rafael Soto, attended a press conference of the organization Healing Our Mother Earth meant to refute the EPA findings.

“For me, it is maddening that [the EPA] said that they did not find anything and there are many affected children,” Elizabeth said.

She, like many other parents and activists, thinks that the condition of the air, water, and ground, because of indiscriminate pesticide use, is one of the causes of the appearance of cancer and birth defects in many McFarland children.

“I believe it is due to [Rafael’s] work: He comes home with dirty clothing exposed to pesticides. But nothing has been verified,” Elizabeth said.

During and after the conference, Julian continued playing actively with everyone. However, after his mother explained Julian’s condition to this reporter, his physical impediments were evident. Julian cannot move his right hand and slightly drags one of his feet.

According to Elizabeth, Julian is generally a happy child, “when he is well.” On the other hand, any basic ailment, from a cold to aches, pains, fever and attacks, can affect him greatly, forcing his parents to take him to the Madera Children’s Hospital, often in the middle of the night.

In the face of this, knowing the results of the EPA study, Rafael’s sense of desperation and impotency is no less than his wife, Elizabeth’s. “We are at war in Iraq against chemical weapons, they say, and here they are killing us with chemicals.”

The Investigation is not Accepted

Just before the EPA’s public information session began, Marta Rodriguez, president of the non-profit organization Healing Our Mother Earth, told the media to show their discontent with the results presented.

Rodriguez, accompanied by lawyer Thomas Brill, famous actor and activist Ed Begley, Jr., and families with sick children, said that despite the EPA reports assuring that chemicals in the water, ground and air are below dangerous levels, the statistics of cancer, birth defects and other sickness continue to rise in McFarland.

“McFarland has the highest number in the entire state of California of neonatal deaths, which is children who die in the first month of life,” Rodriguez said. She also said McFarland has the second highest percentage of stillborn children in the state.

“In the recent elections, much was said about the morality of the United States. How can we continue ignoring the deaths of these children and keep calling ourselves Christians? We must stop whatever is killing our children,” she said.

For his part, lawyer Brill questioned the study, noting that the ozone level in Bakers-field is among the three worst in the country, “only 25 miles from McFarland,” he said.

“Visalia, 40 miles from here, is the fourth worst in the country. Even so, apparently, between these two points the air is magically clean,” Brill said.

“All this is difficult to believe.”

What the group asks is the following: That an independent agency studies the case and determines the causes of the health problems; and that legislators, Congresspersons, and senators are involved and public hearings are held where the families can testify.

And Meanwhile, What?

In the meantime, Alex-ander Gonzales, 11, another sick child, walks through life suffering Down’s syndrome, and, as his mother Emma Gonzalez says, “with a small hole in the heart.” Local resident Ofelia Ruiz, in her trips through McFarland helping Rodriguez, continues finding families with sick children and birth defects — “We found 50 children affected in just one day,” she said. All this continues in the town of McFarland, of 9,600 residents, a great percentage Latino, while the EPA, through its spokespeople, argues that the health problem is not under its jurisdiction, according to air quality investigator Davila. “We are not a health agency, we are an environmental agency.”

Reprinted from Noticiero Semanal, November 17, 2004. Translated by Peter Micek.

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