December 14, 2007

Life Sentence

By Javier Sierra

The brush of destiny painted a very bad stroke on Olga Argüelles’s town. One hundred years of toxic bombardment have devastated Anapra, New Mexico, with a life sentence of an endless source of inmates for the state’s prisons.

“All of my 18-year-old son’s friends have been in prison,” says Argüelles. “Almost every single family in Anapra has had problems with the law. And it has been like this for generations.”

Also, the level education level of Anapra’s children is one of the country’s lowest. Argüelles says that there have been years when not one single high school student has graduated, and that sometimes a decade has gone by without any students getting their high school diplomas.

“Here we have three buses to take our children to elementary school,” she says. “But there is only one to take our high school students.”

What is going on in Anapra? Where did that brush stroke come from? Where did these one hundred years of solitude originate?

The answer lies just on the other side of the Rio Grande, in El Paso, Texas. There, for more than a century, the ASARCO smelter spewed hundreds of tons of some of the most toxic metals in existence, including lead. Because of the area’s prevailing winds, Anapra received an enormous portion of this toxic brush stroke, which left the land barren and Anaprans in a vicious circle of lead poisoning.

Lead is a toxin of great potency. In growing children, lead integrates into the bone as a substitute for calcium. There it becomes a source of ongoing low level exposure. Children —because of their natural inclination to put objects in their mouths— are most exposed and vulnerable to lead’s terrible effects, including irreparable brain damage, mental retardation and aggressive behavior.

“My son has a very high IQ,” says Argüelles. “But he has cognitive problems and his aggressiveness is incontrollable.”

This relationship between lead and aggressive, criminal behavior has been well documented by many studies in recent years. The conclusions of the most recent one, whose author is investigator Rick Nevin, are as stunning as they are persuasive.

Nevin looked into the crime rates in relation to lead levels in the environment in nine countries. And in all of them, up to 90% of the variation in violent crime was explained by lead.

In the U.S., for example, Nevin observed that there have been two sharp increases of lead poisoning in the 20th Century, one at the turn of the century, caused by the content of lead in paint; and the other after World War II, due to the addition of lead in gasoline. Some 20 years after those two historical circumstances, crime levels skyrocketed.

Nevin also observed that 20 years after the elimination of lead in paint and gasoline, crime levels dropped dramatically.

In 2001, another study showed that the number of murders in counties with high levels of lead was four times higher than those in counties with low lead levels.

A year later, investigators at the University of Pittsburgh compared the lead levels of 194 arrested adolescents with the levels of 142 high school students and observed that the arrested youth had a lead level four times higher than the other group.

Lead, however, is not the only factor that influences crime levels. These future criminals, in most cases, grow up in places where guns, poverty and drugs are abundant.

“I would say that the inner-city environment provides the weapon, and lead pulls the trigger,” says Dr. Kim Dietrich, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati.

Lead arrived in Anapra in a different way, but the consequences are the same.

“Here, generation after generation, we are the children of lead,” says Argüelles. “It won’t let us learn, it makes us aggressive, it won’t leave us in peace.”

After decades of negligence by New Mexico officials, Argüelles and the rest of Anapra’s residents are demanding that the federal government investigate this situation and that a reopening permit be denied to the smelter that sentenced them to life in toxic conditions.

But the dangers of lead are not exclusive to Anapra. A recent study tells us 35 percent of the most popular children’s products, including toys, contain dangerous levels of lead. This Christmas, beware of giving your children the proverbial poisoned apple. Learn more at

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist.

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