New Erionite Victim Claimed In Tierra Blanca
By Jesús Aguado
Vicenta Delgado from Tierra Blanca de Abajo was a campesino woman who worked the land. She passed away on January 19 due to lung cancer. Her death is additional proof that something is wrong in that rural community: Delgado is the 19th person who has died from cancer there in recent times.
Marcos Ortega, an investigator from UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), previously assured that the deaths from cancer in Tierra Blanca came from the presence of erionite, a volcanic mineral present in the zone. However, the State Secretariat of Health, represented in San Miguel by Dr. Martín Millán, asserts that cancer in the community is not caused by the mineral, but by other factors. While they have not yet agreed, cancer claimed its new victim and orphaned six children, one of them less than two years of age.
In July last year, Atención had a conversation with Vicenta while investigating the cases of cancer in the community. That day, Ramírez Delgado commented that all her neighbors (11 people) had passed away because of lung cancer and mesothelioma, even those who fled from the community because they thought the area was under a curse because of the profanation of their ancestors’ graves. In the past, commented Delgado, the inhabitants used to dig in small archeological areas, where they found necklaces and knives, among other artifacts that they sold. Vicenta’s husband also died as a result of cancer 13 years ago, but he did not show any symptoms, she said. “He started with a deep pain in his right arm. Later, he could not move it anymore. He started coughing, and he did not get well. He did not live more than three months.”
Vicenta, then mother of three girls and three boys married Eleno Granados three years ago. He describes his wife as a hardworking woman because she used to get up very early in the morning to grind the corn. She made tortillas by hand and when she finished, as she was an ejidataria (holder of a share in common lands), she prepared the land for planting corn, squash, and beans. She was at good fertilizing and taking care of the crops. “When we took her to the General Hospital, the doctors extracted a small ball from her arm. They also extracted water from her lungs, and the doctors said that it was cancer,” commented Granados. “After eight days, she passed away,” he said in addition.
The residents of Tierra Blanca are not surprised about Vicenta’s death because they know that their deaths may also be caused by lung cancer.
Erionite is a mineral that can be found in basalt rocks. It can also appear in sedimentary rocks formed by alteration of vitreous ashes that ended up in lakes.
In 2008 the Lung Diseases Department from the University of Gaziantep, Turkey, published research affirming that the death of inhabitants from Capadoccia was caused precisely by exposure of the residents to the mineral. Marcos Ortega from UNAM explains that the volcanic mineral was found in Tierra Blanca. When people breathe, it settles in the pleura (membrane covering the lungs) and after 15 or 20 years, it causes cancer. The physical and chemical properties of the erionite in the community are similar to those in Capadoccia, Turkey.
Those in charge of the study used several methodologies. Finally, they found the source of the problem situated three kilometers north of Tierra Blanca. There they located volcanic rocks that have been in the area for more than 30 million years. They were underground in the past, but later, due to erosion, they were dragged through the streams to the San Damián River. “The mineral is volcanic glass,” states Ortega. He says in addition that ironically the place where the source is located is the most beautiful area in the community, used as a recreational area. There is an artificial dam, and it is also the place where the settlers graze their livestock. The mineral has been dragged to the paths used by children going to school and has been found in the crops. (Consuming products from those lands does not represent a problem for the locals.) The problem is that the mineral is breathable in the area near the source and in the river, where a cubic centimeter contains more than 100 million microscopic crystals of erionite.)
The researchers started the investigation using epidemiologic information provided by the then director of the Sanitation Department in San Miguel, Silvia Valdéz Haro. They found out that from 2000 to 2012, 45 deaths were registered in the community. Of those, 18 were caused by two types of cancer. Eight men and six women died due to lung cancer, and three men and a woman passed away because of mesothelioma. These numbers indicate a 1.2 percent annual death rate due to erionite in the community.
On the other hand, the current director of the Sanitation Department in San Miguel, Dr. Martín Millán, told Atención that Ramirez Delgado’s death is far away of being lung cancer or mesothelioma. He made it clear that the death was caused by breast cancer or adenocarcinoma. “In this case we have the proofs to say that it was not mesothelioma but a breast cancer that metastasized in the lung and caused a pleural effusion, but it was a secondary problem caused by the breast cancer,” he assured.
It is not a public health problem
Atención interviewed Dr. Millán on this case. He commented that the problem in Tierra Blanca de Abajo it is not a problem of public health, but an environmental problem.
Jesús Aguado: What do you know about the discovery of erionite that causes lung cancer and mesothelioma in Tierra Blanca?
Martín Millán: International information exists that talks about the risk of getting cancer due to the exposure to the mineral; nevertheless, in the community and in the country there is no clinical research allowing us to know for sure if the exposure to the mineral is causing cancer or not. There are geological studies stating that there is erionite in that area, but just that. We do not know if it causes cancer or not.
JA: How could the Secretariat of Health find out if the disease is caused by the erionite?
MM: It is not a topic for the Secretariat of Health because it is not a public health problem, but an environmental one. We are just trying to see if there is an impact on the population, and for that reason they are permanently checked up on. Up to now there has not been an increase in the cases.
JA: How do you conduct your studies?
MM: Since 2012, we have heard that the deaths caused by lung cancer and mesothelioma were increasing, so we decided to conduct epidemiological research in order to detect the possible causes of the cancer and also to know the risk conditions for the community if they were developing cancer. We conducted a survey with all the residents (more than 470 inhabitants) to know the conditions of their lives, the construction material in their houses and their personal and family health records, among other information. We checked up on every single person in the community, and we reduced the sample from 470 to 250, and later from 53 to 9 people. The last patients showed some indicators of possible cancer, but just one case was detected with more specialized studies. That victim was detected by the end of 2012 and passed away in February 2013.
JA: What is the treatment provided by the Secretariat of Health for persons devastated by this kind of cancer?
MM: Depending on the stage of the disease, the secretariat will provide the best medication to the victim to guarantee a better quality of life until their last days. When the patients arrive at the hospital, we analyze the risk-benefit of the patient. Nobody is comfortable being in a hospital, particularly if the patient knows the prognosis is not favorable. That is why we give them the option to spend their last days in their homes, close to their loved ones. For a person in such a condition, it is not beneficial to be in the hospital because there is the risk of getting some kind of infection, and it (leaving the hospital) also provides safety to other patients. That is the reason why Vicenta Delgado had to go home.
JA: What are the current actions by the Secretariat of Health for detecting cancer?
MM: We have constant epidemiological observation just in case. Monthly, doctors attend to the community, providing free medical examinations to the residents, and the doctors have the duty to inform the Sanitation Department of the simplest cancer suspicion in order to provide treatment to the victim.
JA: Is Tierra Blanca the only community with cancer cases?
MM: As in any other community of the city, the state, or the country, and even in the world, cancer is increasing because of multiple factors like industrialization. In some communities, the lung cancer cases are linked to the smoke that people breathe when they are cooking or making handmade tortillas. If you ask me, the exact cause of cancer is different factors, and we cannot link it to just one cause.