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Tierra Blanca devastated by cancer

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

In Tierra Blanca de Abajo, many inhabitants die because of mesothelioma—tumors in the lungs—caused by a mineral in the area called erionite. It is breathed in and later settles on the surface membrane covering the lungs causing cancer and eventually, death. Although the local and state authorities now know about this problem they have not paid special attention to it.

Tierra Blanca is a rancho with more than 500 inhabitants who know each other and happily greet everyone, even foreigners, as they walk down the streets. It is a rural community where the land is very fertile and there is potable water. Because of this, people have orchards in their backyards. Unfortunately, they defecate in the open because there are no sanitation facilities and the water is contaminated with arsenic and fluoride.

There are several options for getting to Tierra Blanca from San Miguel de Allende: in a taxi for 250 pesos, by bus for 20 pesos or walking from Cruz del Palmar for 40 minutes. The San Damián river separates Tierra Blanca from the community of El Espejo and these two places are connected by a hanging bridge that is the only exit to San Miguel de Allende for inhabitants during the rainy season.

Beliefs vs Science

Multiple families live in the houses of the community, and in the morning all the women gather to make corn tortillas. They talk about everything and nothing, but the most interesting topic in the last months has been lung cancer. Doña Consuelo Colunga abandoned her activities for a moment to talk with Atención. She said that 50 years ago, there was a man named Miguel Malo, who arrived in the community asking the natives to excavate in the coecillos—archeological zones—and sell him what they could find.

“He said that what we could find would be well paid in San Miguel,” says Colunga. People used to find the skeletons of ancestors with offerings containing kitchen utensils like flint knives, bracelets with beautiful stones and sometimes skulls.

“I remember it very well,” comments Guerrero, because her father had two large knives in his house, which he sold to Malo. Near the river, the inhabitants used to show what they had found. There Malo used to take photos, buy the objects and put them in classification boxes.

“They say that he sold those objects in Europe until he was caught by the authorities (for) commercializing the items, and he committed suicide,” said Colunga.

Graciela Martínez, director of the CEDESA (Center for Agriculture and Livestock Development A.C.) told Atención that her organization started working to construct cisterns for collecting rainfall water in the community of Los Torres. In 2010, the inhabitants of Tierra Blanca requested a meeting with the organization. Martínez said, “… they did not want to talk about the cisterns, but of their mortality problem.” She said in addition that the people were frightened because they thought the deaths were a curse for profaning the graves of their ancestors.

With the support of the local administration at that time, headed by Luz María Núñez and Dr. Adrián Ortega Guerrero from the Institute of Geosciences of the National Autonomous University of México Juriquilla campus, who in the past had conducted studies to learn about the quality of water in the area, research on the situation began.

In 2013, the magazine Environmental Geochemistry and Heath published detailed surveys. Microscopic and analytical studies were conducted near Tierra Blanca de Abajo where lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma (MM)

are the primary cause of death. Erionite was found in the zone. The publication also states that the physical and chemical characteristics of erionite near San Miguel de Allende are similar to those of the Cappadocian region of Turkey, where erionite is associated with MM. The publication also notes that the presence of erionite and the type of respiratory diseases that occur in the village strongly suggest the need for detailed health-based studies in the region. The study also suggests that fine grain deposits used in the past for the construction of adobe-houses and in recreational areas also contain erionite associated with erosion and alluvial transport from the rhyolitic tuffs, potentially affecting more than 13 villages located downstream toward the Allende dam.

The cases

Entire families have died from lung cancer, according to the inhabitants of Tierra Blanca. They say that the cancer attacks those between 20 and 50 years old. Once it appears, they say, “the victims die three months later.”

On the banks of the river live an elderly señora named Carmela Arana and her nine-year-old granddaughter, Fátima, whose mother passed away three years ago. “They said it was something in the lung,” says Arana.

Doña Toña, who is raising her granddaughter, Elizabeth, lives near the river. Toña’s daughter-in-law passed away two years ago, when she was 22, of the same problem, she says.

According to Vicenta Ramírez Delgado, whose husband died 11 years ago of lung cancer, the symptoms are a pain in the right arm. After the pain shows up the victims cannot move the arm. They start coughing and they never get well but die two or three months later. She commented about the nine members of the family in front of her. “All of them passed away, the parents, sons and daughters. Some of them,” commented Vicenta, “left the community, but they died in Querétaro, México and San Luis Potosí.” The last death caused by lung cancer, said the women of the community, was that of a woman who went to the border to live. People who can are leaving the community. Vicenta remarks, “My daughters ask me to go with them, but that does not make sense, because if I have the disease, I am going to carry it with me. I am going to die in the end.”

The freeway faces a new problem

Magdaleno Ramírez, an Otomí leader who has opposed the construction of the Guanajauto-San Miguel freeway (along with the indigenous communities,) told Atención that

the erionite vein is located two kilometers to the north, away from Tierra Blanca. Ramírez remarked that the studies conducted have not found the size of the vein. For that reason, he is afraid that the excavations for the construction of the freeway could spread the erionite in the environment and lung cancer could turn into a public health problem due to the people’s exposure to the mineral. It will affect not only the inhabitants of Tierra Blanca and the surrounded area, but also the people who work on its construction.

David Olivier, director of the Public Relations Department for the Secretariat of Public Works, told Atención that the erionite problem is just a new trick from Magdaleno for stopping the construction. He assures that they are meeting all the judicial requirements  and that the SOP will win and construct the road. He also said that the SOP and the Secretariat of Public Health will hold a meeting with the inhabitants and the Health Department and will conduct a specialized study.

On the other hand, the neighbors of Tierra Blanca commented that the Health Department’s proposal was just a promise to give them preferential treatment in the hospitals if they arrive with a disease. “What we want is a deep, specialized study. We want to know if we are sick or not,” they charged.

The solution

Currently there is no solution to the problem. The Secretariat of Public Health told Atención that a press release will be sent in the days to come. According to people from CEDESA, nowadays it is advisable to just cover the adobe walls with concrete and pave the streets.

“We will not leave the community,” assured some of the inhabitants, who want to die on their land where they have their plots to tend, their livestock and their family.

Note: Aliases were substituted for some of the names.



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