Breakfast of Champions

Joshua Chapa lives by a drainage ditch and throws up every morning before school

As the Peña house stirs, 12-year-old Joshua Chapa is leaning out of bed and pulling on his shorts. Then, like too many days before, he walks to the bathroom and vomits. He finishes getting dressed slowly. Then he checks his backpack and gathers his books. By the time his dad, Rene Chapa, is ready to take him to school, he'll make one more trip to the restroom to puke again. He doesn't eat breakfast at home anymore, his dad says. It's only after he gets to school at Hamilton Junior High across town that his stomach is settled enough to take in food.

He used to like to be the first one at school, to get in some early-morning hoops practice. But three years ago they moved into the home of Rene Chapa's mom and stepdad, Eugenio and Delta Peña. The problems started almost immediately.

First, Joshua was prescribed an inhaler and a nebulizer for his breathing problems. But when his condition didn't improve, Rene Chapa went doctor-shopping. A recent change of treatment took him off the drugs completely and started allergy tests. The battery of pricks failed to explain so much as a sneeze, and the family wasn't impressed with the doctor's prescription of raw, local honey. X-rays found nothing, either.

Today's doctor is examining Joshua for possible stomach infections. His dad knows that's another wasted rabbit trail. You see, Rene Chapa has the same symptoms. As does his mother. It gets worse anytime they go outside their home on Palo Alto, separated from the landfill and its gas-processing plant by a drainage ditch, two brief breaks of trees and a two-lane road. It gets worse when the trash and gas smells ride the air. Their breathing gets labored and their sinuses clog. Sometimes just a short jaunt to the detached laundry room will send his mother back to bed for the day. Even on a good day his 63-year-old mother carries a small trash can with her around the house ("Her little spittoon," Rene jokes).

His whole family has problems breathing, Chapa says.

His landfill suspicions were raised only recently when he watched a cable TV show about dirty jobs, he says. It detailed conditions at a city dump and mentioned the dangers of methane gas emissions. He remembers thinking: "I wonder if they have that here?" Then he became better acquainted with his neighbors and their trove of unhappy stories.

"We assumed it was just a problem here," Rene Chapa says of his mom's house, "but we now know that it's something going on."

Recently, they started pumping from a neighbor's water well. Though the water they draw is still deeply discolored and reeks, as Chapa says, "like someone just took a crap in it," it's an improvement. And so they go on, changing the filter on the water pump as frequently as they can, cooking with bottled water and waiting for the winds to change.

 
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