The Poison Connection

Matamoros, Mexico
"Paracaidistas," they call them, when they first arrive. Parachutists. Whether it's the sheets of plastic covering the roofs of the wood-and-tin shacks, or the sensation that the residents of these squatters' towns one day just appeared, as if they had fallen from the sky, the description somehow makes sense. At least it makes sense in Colonia Chorizo, which clings to two strips of land along the railroad right-of-way northwest of this border city.

Walk the fence that divides Chorizo (which means "sausage") from the Parque Industrial del Golfo and you follow the recent history of the expatriate chemical companies that found a home in this border town's "Chemical Row." The first is Retzloff, which, until it shut down in 1992 -- after being featured on ABC's PrimeTime Live -- had manufactured pesticides, and in the course of that production had filled a now-covered holding pond with a waste stream that included benzene, a known carcinogen. Next is Asarco, which, until it closed in 1993, processed zinc and lead battery plates; Asarco is believed to be responsible for the elevated levels of lead in residential neighborhoods on Chemical Row. Then comes Stepan Chemical, which -- after it was the target of a media campaign organized by U.S. church groups -- switched from the production of pesticides to surfactants and emulsifiers.

Just past Stepan, sitting between a vegetable-oil plant and the long-abandoned Insecticidas Longoria, is Productos de Preservacion, incorporated in Delaware as "Idacon" but operating out of a Houston corporate office.

Idacon's office suite on Harwin Drive poses no threat to its southwest Houston neighbors. But in Matamoros, Idacon's plant produces pentachlorophenol, a wood preservative. Pentachlorophenol, or "penta," as it is known, has a history as long as its name, and dirtier than the ditch into which Productos empties at least some of the waste from its Matamoros plant.

Pentachlorophenol (abbreviated PCP) was once produced by U.S. petrochemical heavyweights like Monsanto and Dow Chemical, but today only Vulcan Chemical's Wichita, Kansas, plant produces penta north of the Rio Grande. However, the chemical can be found on 43 U.S. Superfund sites, where the waste from wood treatment plants that used pentachlorophenol as a preservative remains a serious problem -- a problem which, according to Carol Van Strum, an Oregon-based writer who researched and wrote a book for Greenpeace (The Politics of Penta, 1989) on pentachlorophenol, defies easy solution. Pentachlorophenol is very stable and therefore persistent. It doesn't go away. "PCP is the garbage can of the chlorophenols," says Van Strum. "It's the easiest to produce, because the chemical process used to make it doesn't have to be stopped. It is a fully chlorinated phenol that includes hexa dioxin, the second most dangerous type of dioxin, and has been associated with a lot of serious health problems. Leukemia, for example, has been associated with penta."

Penta is dangerous because it does precisely what its chemists intended it to do. "This product was designed to kill, totally," Van Strum says. "It is known as the all-purpose killer. It kills bacteria, insects, mildew, woodrot. So at one time it was put into everything, it was put into rubber seals on bottles of canned goods, in detergent..."

It was through detergent that the general public began to understand exactly how deadly penta is. In a series of investigative reports published by the Kansas City Star in 1984, environmental reporter Myron Levin took a critical look at pentachlorophenol. Newborn infants, Levin wrote, were the first casualties in a chemical assault that Van Strum argues should have been stopped at least 20 years ago. "Three of the babies poisoned in their cribs died. The pesticide that got them may still be stalking the ones who survived," wrote Levin. The pesticide found to be the cause of death of three infants who died in a North Dakota hospital was the pentachlorophenol in the detergent that the hospital used to wash bedding and diapers. Levin didn't stop with hospital and press reports of the 1966 infant deaths; he followed the trail of the survivors, who were 17 and 18 years old in 1984, when the Star published his series of articles, "Penta, Deadly and Pervasive."

Reporting his findings, Levin wrote, "The Kansas City Star recently traced five of the children who were poisoned by the detergent but lived. The fate of some in this group might be said to be a coincidence -- or a bitter warning." One of the children was found in a home for the mentally retarded. Another had a minor learning disability. A third child was stricken with an unusually fatal leukemia when she was twelve but had survived, and "her chances now seem to be good." The other two children, Levin reported, were then (1984) in good health.

December 1992: The Psychological Gas Leak
As the news spread of the deaths of the newborns, detergent manufacturers stopped using penta in their products. But the chemical continues to be used as a wood preservative and remains a hazard to those who produce and work with it, or come in contact with it. It's also a threat to the paracaidistas of Colonia Chorizo, and to the downwinders in two large residential colonias that lie across the street on the northwest side of Chemical Row. Residents of the Uniones and Esperanza colonias have complained for years about fumes from Productos's penta plant, Stepan's plant and the two plants that have recently shut down.

There have been documented incidents of spills and leaks, complaints of penta fumes in the sewer system, tales of vapor plumes and tank explosions. After a while, it's hard to separate fact from fear. But according to a woman who lives in nearby Uniones, an incident that occurred December 23, 1992, illustrates just how dangerous the penta plant, estimated to be between 15 and 20 years old, actually is. By Mexican standards the industrial accident that involved 23 women in a metal sorting plant was only a minor incident. "It was another warning," said the woman, who requested that her name be withheld. "When a small gas leak in one plant overcomes workers in another plant, well, what does that tell you?"

According to reports in the Matamoros daily newspaper, El Bravo, after a gasket ruptured in the Idacon plant on December 23, 23 women in the Newell Metals plant -- located some 50 yards northwest of the Idacon penta plant -- were overcome by fumes.

When I traveled to Matamoros last month and requested an interview with the Productos plant manager, Alfredo Hernandez, he was on vacation. David L. Hatcher of Houston, listed on the corporate filings at the Texas Secretary of State's office as the president of the Texas corporation (currently doing business under the name of "KMG-Bernuth Inc."), refused to be interviewed for this story until after deadline. "I rarely talk to the press," Hatcher responded by telephone. "It's been my experience, in talking to the press, you just get skewered."

Hatcher also said that he does not allow employees at Idacon's Matamoros plant to talk to the press, and that an interview with plant manager Hernandez would be out of the question. Contacted by telephone at his residence in Houston, Bobby Godfrey, listed as the corporation's vice president, also refused to be interviewed, saying that all requests for information would have to be made to the Idacon office. An interview request sent by fax to the Houston address of Maureen Gilory, listed as corporation treasurer, received no response.

So what happened at the Newell Metals plant on the afternoon of December 23, 1992? The report published in El Bravo is straightforward and factual. A gasket began to leak and 23 women, some of whom fainted, were overcome. When ambulances arrived, according to El Bravo, they were denied admittance to the industrial park. It was not until the Delta Squad of the State Judicial Police Force forced its way past the gate that the stricken women received medical attention.

"The Bravo reported the story bad," Newell Metals plant manager Fred Quintana said when asked about the newspaper report. Quintana, whose plant security officers, according to El Bravo, told ambulance drivers from the Red Cross and Green Cross that they had orders to keep everyone out of the industrial park, was also mentioned at the end of the El Bravo story: He claimed that only eight of his employees were affected. All of the workers overcome by the gas were women. Most of the sorters who stand at a conveyer belt at Newell Metals are women.

"It was just a chemical leak. We evacuated the plant. It turned out to be non-toxic, non-dangerous," Quintana said. He later clarified what he said at the beginning of a telephone interview, explaining that what occurred was a gas leak and not a chemical leak. "There's a difference," he said.

If it was not dangerous, not toxic, why did the women pass out after being exposed to the gas?

"Psychological," Quintana answered. "Look, we had all those girls taken to the Social Security [workers' hospital] and all of them came back with a clean bill of health. The gas went into the atmosphere. I don't know what gas it was. But it was not a chemical leak because none of those girls inhaled any of that stuff. The majority of what happened was psychological."

Van Strum, whose work for Greenpeace places her squarely on the other side of the fence from Quintana and the operators of the Productos de Preservacion plant -- who in this case are distinguished by their absolute silence -- disagrees. Van Strum says of pentachlorophenol, "If you can smell it, you're exposed." Dr. Jonathan Ward, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical School-Galveston Branch, at first did not seem to consider the penta plant as grave a threat to the neighboring residential community as did Van Strum. "There would have to be levels of the chemical in excess of what you would find in the ambient environment [before it would be a serious hazard]," Ward said.

But when told that women fainted from exposure to pentachlorophenol or to some component of it, Ward indicated that the incident changes the terms by which anyone would assess the risk of chemical exposure around a penta plant: "If you have an acute reaction to a one-time exposure, you have to ask what's the level of day-to-day exposure." If pentachlorophenol is a "teratogen" -- a substance which, according to Ward, "causes structural malfunctions in developing embryos' -- then pregnant women exposed to the chemical could be in considerable danger. The Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste describes pentachlorophenol as fetotoxic and teratogenic during early gestation, though no EPA studies have yet concluded that penta is teratogenic. But the question concerning pregnant women's exposure to the substance is a separate issue, said EPA scientist Cate Jenkins, who four years ago was reassigned after pushing for the upgrading of PCP's hazardous waste classification. "It might be proven that it is teratogenic. But it clearly is a threat to the fetus. Anything as toxic as pentachlorophenol will cause birth defects and reproductive abnormalities," Jenkins said in a telephone interview.

Blindness, Fog and Silence
Filling in the empty space between the conflicting accounts offered by Fred Quintana and El Bravo's reporters -- and the absolute silence of Idacon -- is not easy in Mexico. Workers, who fear blacklisting and retaliation from employers, generally avoid the press. Not all managers of maquiladoras, the American assembly plants that take advantage of the tax, labor and environmental-enforcement breaks Mexico offers, are as forthright as Quintana, who also serves as executive director of the Matamoros Association of Maquiladoras.

Six former female employees of Newell Metals were interviewed for this story. Each was guaranteed anonymity. Only former Newell employees were interviewed because, by December 21 and 22 of 1993, when the interviews were done, the company had laid off most of its work force and was suspending its Matamoros operation -- a temporary move, according to Quintana, which has nothing to do with the plant's proximity to Idacon.

So in kitchens -- and in bedrooms that double as living rooms -- of workers' houses that looked as if they might have been plucked out of a South African township or a Brazilian favela, a picture began to come into focus of the nature of the risk faced by workers in adjacent plants and by Idacon's residential neighbors.

"A cloud came into the plant and my eyes and nose began to burn," said a 17-year-old woman from the south of Mexico. "When we ran to the front, Dario [the Union steward] said we weren't authorized to leave -- to get back to the conveyor belt." (Labor unions on Chemical Row are something less than workers' advocates.) As the fog became more dense and visibility worse, because of the dense vapor cloud and irritated eyes, the woman said, workers rushed the exit and managed to get out of the plant. Her version of what happened inside the plant was confirmed by an interview the previous night with an older woman who, as she spoke, assembled her daughter's bicycle, purchased with part of her severance pay.

One of the women recalled that as the vapor cloud filled the building, she began to have heart palpitations, dizziness and nausea -- all symptoms associated with pentachlorophenol exposure. Outside, a number of women fainted. All who were interviewed, two of whom said they had fainted, said ambulances were initially denied access to the overcome workers, some of whom were lying on the ground, unconscious. "I woke up in the ambulance, with an oxygen mask on my face," one of the younger women said. The older woman first interviewed said an uncle of one of her co-workers argued with the gate guard and finally forced his way past the gate. Other workers interviewed the following day separately described the same incident. "I don't know how many, but there were a lot who went to the hospital," said a fourth woman, 18 years old and late in the third trimester of her first pregnancy. "I think 30."

Dr. Ricardo Ayala, director of Matamoros' Social Security Hospital, said he had been at the hospital for only six months and was not familiar with the incident. But a staff physician in his office said she recalled it and that although she couldn't recall the precise number, she was certain there were far more than eight, the figure Fred Quintana gave the El Bravo reporter.

Ayala said that despite the concentration of chemical plants in the city, he didn't think his staff treated an unusually high number of chemical-exposure cases. "It seems about average," he said, adding that he had done no study of numbers at hospitals in other Mexican industrial centers. He also touted his hospital's new chemical decontamination center, a pilot program he described as "the first in the republic." It is based on the doctoral work of an industrial hygienist at Kemet, the doctor said. (Kemet is a Matamoros maquiladora that has set a new standard for plant safety, after a whistleblower used a contact with an American church group to get information to shareholders in New York.) The women, according to the staff physician who provided information about the Productos de Preservacion leak, were treated and then sent home.

But not, however, until they returned to the Newell Metal sorting shed to pick up their personal belongings. "When we got back, they made us stay until the reporters and everyone left," one woman said. Said another, "They told us, 'Don't talk to anyone.' They don't want any scandals." Asked who had told employees not to discuss the incident, the woman answered, "Don Fred." ("Don Fred" is the Newell plant manager, Fred Quintana.)

"Bullshit," Quintana said when asked if the women were detained and told to keep quiet when they returned from the hospital to pick up their belongings. "We didn't have anything to hide," he said. "My workers were the ones who were affected.... Gas went into the atmosphere, the atmosphere probably had a little pollution in it. And there was an odor. But it wasn't anything dangerous. It didn't do any damage, anyway. They checked all these girls." Quintana said he lodged a protest with the plant management at Productos de Preservacion, and that there were no follow-up studies of the women who had been exposed.

Quintana also said he would like to see the Productos plant relocated. "Quite frankly, if we were going to stay here we would like to see them move. You know, because once something like that happens you have a hysteria factor. And I wouldn't want them as permanent neighbors. That's my own personal opinion."

The Power of Free Trade
"It was an incident," said Domingo Gonzalez, "that never should have happened." Gonzalez, from Brownsville, has worked with several U.S.-based environmental and labor groups, coordinating community organizations in the colonias that border Chemical Row. "Metales Newell should have known better than to set up an operation that involved so many women in an enclosed building downwind from a dangerous chemical plant." He added that Idacon's penta plant, after continued pressure from women in the two downwind colonias, had reached a shutdown agreement with Sedesol, Mexico's environmental protection agency. "They're still operating 18 months after they were to have shut down," Gonzalez said.

After the December 23 accident, a spokesperson for the Matamoros city government told a reporter for El Bravo the city government would again demand that the penta plant be closed down. A year later, Olimpia Lopez, of the Matamoros Sedesol office, confirmed that the plant is going to shut down, but said she does not know of any deadline or timetable. Nicolaas De Leon works in the procuraria, Sedesol's enforcement office in Matamoros. "We're conducting a study of their situation," De Leon said. "And they are supposed to relocate. But I cannot tell you when."

Asked about the deadline mentioned by Domingo Gonzalez, De Leon responded that "relocating a chemical plant is not an easy process." It requires site assessment and cleanup plans at the old site, he explained, and a site assessment at the new site. A plan, he said, has been drawn up now in Mexico City.

And then De Leon said something that suggested the limitations of his office: "It is very urgent that they move and we will continue to urge them to move. We can't move them, and there are other government agencies involved in this process." De Leon added that Idacon will be responsible for a cleanup of the contaminated site after the company shuts down its Matamoros operation -- a responsibility some U.S.-based companies operating in Mexico and the United States have evaded by filing bankruptcy.

Javier Dragostinoves, a reporter for El Bravo and the Mexico City financial newspaper El Financiero, suggested that the apparent difficulty in forcing Idacon to comply with the shutdown order is a measure of the power that maquiladora owners wield in Mexico City. That power, Dragostinoves said, increased during the debate and ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. "You can feel the power they have here in Matamoros," he said. "Reporters can't get into [the Parque Industrial del Golfo]. It's like the American Embassy over there. They have even denied admission to inspectors from the Ministerio Publico, which is like your attorney general's office."

The presidential selection process, which was put on hold until the U.S. Congress ratified the free trade agreement, might have influenced the course of events on Chemical Row. Salinismo, the economics of lame-duck president Carlos Salinas, has always placed economic development ahead of environmental safety, and Sedesol was once headed by Luis Donaldo Colosio, whose selection by Salinas as the presidential candidate of the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party virtually assures that Colosio will prevail in the August presidential election. In his quiet campaign to win Salinas's -- and thereby the party's -- nomination, it is unlikely that Colosio would have pressed for the shutdown of a U.S.-owned border plant. So the Houston-based penta producer might have found it easier to get an extension.

Other signs that government policy at Matamoros's Chemical Row is something more than benign neglect are the intimidating visits that agents of the Secretaria de Gobernacion (Mexico's Interior Department) have paid to those community activists who have protested pollution from plants in the industrial park, and from a nearby hydrofluoric acid plant partially owned by Du Pont. "We are concerned about our Mexican colleagues who work with us in the area around Stepan and Du Pont," Ed Krueger, a U.S.-based labor organizer, wrote in a memo to his employer, the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia.

"Please don't attribute anything to me any more," said one woman I had interviewed for a previous story. "It's too dangerous here anymore and I can't talk." This, from a woman who had once blocked the gate to the industrial park after a penta spill sent fumes wafting through neighborhoods downwind from the plant.

Blowin' in the Wind
Her government, she knows, is not the only danger. The women who passed out one year ago in December worked in a shed located between Idacon and her house. For her, they must seem, unfortunately, like those caged canaries whose death and silence once would warn miners of depleted oxygen and accumulation of poisonous gases. And there have been other leaks from Productos de Preservacion: One affected nine workers in a nearby textile plant four years ago; another, in 1992, carried a cloud of monochlorophenol all the way to Brownsville.

The wind on Chemical Row blows two ways. When the residents of the Esperanza ("hope" in English) and Uniones colonias are upwind from the penta plant, they are downwind from Quimica Fluor, a plant similar to the Marathon HF plant that released a hydrofluoric acid cloud in Texas City in 1987 -- a cloud that left a trail of dead vegetation and seared lungs and eyes before it dissipated.

Even when Idacon's plant operations are suspended, as they were from December 18, 1993, to January 3, 1994, the plant remains a hazard. Behind Productos de Preservacion, liquid flows from both a plastic pipe and a concrete ditch inside the fence into an unlined ditch outside the fence. What is experienced here is not only olfactory, but something far more penetrating. Your eyes water, your chest tightens, and after a while an odd taste settles into your mouth. Slowly, a strange sensation develops, a slight numbness of the forehead and forearms and hands.

"Peripheral neuropathy," Carol Van Strum guessed when I told her what we experienced while shooting photos and talking to neighborhood children who were playing behind the plant. "It's a symptom of penta exposure. But think about the doses the workers in the plant get."

Inside the plant, where we went last month to request interviews, some half-dozen men worked around tanks and pressure vessels. The plant production was shut down for the Christmas holidays; none of the workers wore masks or breathing devices.

In the United States, working conditions for penta workers are monitored by federally mandated industrial health surveillance programs. The U.S. EPA requires Vulcan's Wichita plant to meet strict pollution-control standards. "Our company has been making the product since the mid-'50s and has always met federal regulations," Vulcan plant manager Paul Tobias said in a telephone interview. "It's a good plant and a good product." Environmentalists would disagree with Tobias, but most would certainly prefer to see pentachlorophenol produced -- if it must be produced -- under U.S. EPA standards, and in a corporate climate that is somewhat more open than Mexico's.

But not completely open. For example, don't look for "Idacon" in the Houston Yellow Pages. Nor will you find Productos de Preservacion listed there. Nor "QED Laboratories," another name under which the Delaware corporation has done business. These days it's "KMG Bernuth." Does KMG Bernuth return its toxic waste to the United States, as is nominally required of maquiladoras in Mexico? How much pentachlorophenol does it produce each year? What is the level of dioxin content in its product? When does it intend to leave Chemical Row in Matamoros? Why doesn't the privately held company engage in dialogue with its neighbors, as other, publicly held companies in Matamoros have? For that matter, who actually owns and profits from "Productos de Preservacion" or "KMG Bernuth" or "QED Laboratories" or "Idacon"? Who lies behind the paper trail that begins amid the devastated landscape of Chemical Row in Matamoros, runs through a nondescript corporate office in Houston, and ends with otherwise unremarkable incorporation papers in Delaware?

These are all questions that are more readily answered by corporations whose operations do not straddle borders. And, they are the kinds of questions that will need to be asked more frequently, as we move into the era of free trade in North America.

on Ireneo Sanchez thinks he has the answers to a few of the questions. The septuagenarian, who sells soft drinks from a stand in front of his house, 40 feet from the fence that divides residential and petrochemical Mexico, is no paracaidista. "I came here in 1941," he says, "when all of this was farm land. Then one plant, then another, then another, and now look. And you know what? Reporters and TV cameras and congressmen and photographers all come and go. But these plants stay.

"Some night, everyone in this neighborhood is going go to bed. And in the morning, no one is going to wake up.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >