March 28, 2003


The Other War

By: Javier Sierra

While the US armed forces are in the Middle East, public opinion speaks of nothing but that. The likely, many would say imminent, war in Iraq has almost completely absorbed national and international attention.

But as a Hispanic, today I want to talk to you about another war, one that is being fought in this country and that affects three out of five members of our community. This is a quiet war whose casualties, in the vast majority of the cases, never know what kind of risk they face.

In this war there are no bullets or rockets. The ammunition is toxic chemicals dumped in the air, water and soil, with devastating consequences for the health of those who live nearby.

I am talking about a toxic attack on scores of Hispanic communities located close to garbage dumps, incinerators, chemical plants or freeways. This offensive does not target only Hispanics; African Americans and white Americans are also victims. But the percentage of suffering Hispanics is higher than that of any other national community.

Examples abound. But today I am going to focus on two very illustrate cases. Let us start with the San Joaquin Valley, in California, where the air is so polluted by cars and farming equipment that living there is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. For the valley Hispanics, though, which comprise 40 percent of the population, those cigarettes do not seem to have filters.

Meet Liza Martínez, whose two children, Nicholas, 15, and Eileen, 7, have pollution-induced asthma. Both confirm an Environmental Working Group study which found that in that cauldron of pollution, conditions for Hispanics are 36 percent worse.

“I am lucky I live with my family in an area with less pollution, in Fresno,” says Martinez. “But when Nicholas visits his uncle, who lives in the barrio, close to the fields full of pesticides, he gets really sick and we even have to take him to the hospital.”

Last year, half of all the kids hospitalized because of asthma at the Children’s Hospital of Central California in Madero County were Latinos.

According to Dr. Kevin Hamilton, director of the Asthma Program at the Community Health Center in Fresno, among Hispanics, 20 percent of children and 12 percent of adults have asthma; whereas among whites, 11 percent of children and 7 percent of adults do.

Moreover, almost twice as many Hispanics die because of pollution-related illnesses as whites.

A similar story is going on in a community in Denver, CO, called Vasquez-I70, where more than 4,500 mostly Hispanic families live in one of the country’s most contaminated places. An abandoned foundry left the soil poisoned with lead, arsenic and cadmium.

These toxic residues pose a grave danger for kids. With potential to damage every internal organ in the human body, lead specially affects children because of its potential to impede both mental and physical development. Exposure to lead also can cause catastrophic damage to pregnant women and their fetuses, including premature birth, smaller babies, lesser mental capacity and likely physical growth reduction.

The situation is so critical in Vasquez-I70 the federal government years ago chose it as a Superfund site, which made it eligible for federal funding to clean up the soil. It was not easy. It took the entire community to mobilize in order to attract the authorities’ attention.

Last year, however, the Bush administration cancelled the approved funds, thus slamming the door on the hopes of those 4,500 families for a better future.

These are typical examples of what is known as environmental injustice by which the most underprivileged communities get to live in the most dangerous places.

But not everything is lost to toxic pollution. The weapon to defend yourself against it is your vote. Register to vote, and when you cast your ballot, keep in mind who are your allies and who are your enemies in this war.

For more information about this and many other environmental topics, visit the Sierra Club bilingual site at

Javier Sierra is a columnist for the Sierra Club. The 700,000 members of the Sierra Club, inspired by nature, work together to protect our communities and the planet. The Club is America’s oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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