Five Million for Tierra Blanca
By Jesús Aguado
It is not because the rural community of Tierra Blanca de Abajo shelters the vein of a mineral called Erionite—Erionite is linked here and in other countries to lung cancer and mesothelioma that kills people in just a few months. The truth is that Tierra Blanca is listed as a high poverty area. Five million pesos coming from the state government will change the façade of the community, and it will be even better than neighborhoods in the urban area. The bad news is that the construction of a vehicle bridge is not included in the work. A bridge is very necessary to cross the river during the rainy season.
Tierra Blanca is a community of 490 inhabitants, situated deep in the hills on the new road to Guanajuato. It sits on the banks of the San Damián River, a tributary that runs clear water this time of the year but is turbulent during the rainy season, isolating the people from the civilization, crossing is simply impossible. It is a place rich in natural resources of gravel and sand. However, according to some studies conducted by the Institute of Geosciences from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the area also shelters a vein of erionite, a mineral fiber similar to asbestos that if altered spreads through the wind and can cause lung cancer or mesothelioma if people breathe it.
Previously, Dr. Marcos Ortega, a scientist from UNAM, conducted the investigation with a team of specialists using several methodologies. They finally found the source of the problem three kilometers north of Tierra Blanca, where they located volcanic rocks that have been in the area for more than 30 million years. Underground in the past, they were later dragged throughout the streams to the San Damián River due to erosion. “The mineral is volcanic glass,” stated Ortega. He noted that the place where the source is located is ironically the most beautiful area in the community, used as a recreational place. There is also an artificial dam 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 the 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 scientists also held a presentation for the inhabitants of Tierra Blanca, advising them to pave their roads, reforest the areas where the erionite has been found, and construct family orchards to minimize the volatility of the crystals. Regardless of the source of the mineral, Ortega commented that it needed to be isolated through a large engineering project. He did not elaborate on this.
The five million pesos
For Atención, David Olivier, director of the Public Relations Department from the State Secretariat of Public Works (SOP) commented that the works being performed there now have nothing to do with the recommendations from Dr. Ortega or with the alleged presence of a carcinogenic mineral. What really happened, he noted, “is that the community is listed as high poverty,” and they needed the improvements. He also said that local residents directly asked Governor Márquez for the construction several years ago. Among the construction projects is the rehabilitation of the road that leads to the community. The road is being paved with stones and concrete. It is five to six meters wide in some zones and it covers 1.5 kilometers. It includes sidewalks. It is currently 48 percent completed. The children and young inhabitants do not have to play on rustic soccer fields because a soccer camp has been completed for them. There is also a main plaza in progress where the community members can hold their meetings. It is being built with concrete and is 28 percent completed. The total investment was 5, 800,000 pesos.
Inhabitants want the bridge
“The bridge is the most important [thing]. Last year my granddaughter passed from pneumonia because the river was turbulent, and we could not cross it for days to take her to the hospital,” commented Consuelo Guerrero. She added that according to comments from the employees of SOP, “the community is being improved to attract tourism—but how will they cross the river if there is no bridge?” She said that she is about to turn 60, and she expects to see the construction before her death because the community has been requesting a vehicle bridge for many years. “I want to cross that bridge and give thanks to God and to the government for its construction.”
Olivier reported that there had been a problem with the property that could impact work progress, but he said that the problem was solved, clearing the way for SOP to begin working on the executive project. According to Olivier, people from the Secretariat initiated this work a month ago, and it could take four months more to finish it. He assured that once they have it done, they can go to the Secretariat de Hacienda (Ministry of Finances) to get resources.
Señora Petra Guerrero also commented that the bridge is most essential. She acknowledged that they need the works in progress “to cover the erionite, but we need much more. This helps to avoid the volatility, but we need more.” She commented that now the lung cancer or mesothelioma does not scare them, but she acknowledged that it is sad to see how young people die.
To detect possible cancer cases in time, if they exist, the Secretariat of Public Health offers monthly checkups for the residents. However, Verónica Granados, another resident, advised that this is not quality service and the attitude of the doctors is not good. She said that the local administration gave them mortar and toilets two months ago to construct community washrooms that can be used for people when they go for checkups. The value of this material was 20,000 pesos and, according to Granados, the community cooperated with the same amount.
Minerals and numbers
Researchers started an investigation using epidemiologic information provided by Silvia Valdéz Haro, former director of the local sanitary jurisdiction. 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 from mesothelioma. These numbers indicate a 1.2 percent annual death rate due to erionite in the community.
The scientists started to research the type of mineral causing the deaths in Tierra Blanca and to determine whether erionite, the volcanic mineral formed in undergrounds waters, was really in the area. Previously, in 1998, UNAM had found and published the presence of that mineral on a path from Guanajuato to Juventino Rosas. In Tierra Blanca more than 200 samples of rocks, containing minerals such as chrome, asbestos, nickel, cadmium, and beryllium, were collected to be analyzed. They found out that although some minerals were in the area, they were in low concentrations that were not perilous to the inhabitants’ health.
The last death was that of Vicenta Ramírez in August 2014. The inhabitants, including her husband, said that she died because of lung cancer. However, the current director of the Sanitation Department in San Miguel, Dr. Martín Millán, told Atención that Ramirez Delgado’s death was far being lung cancer or mesothelioma. He clarified that her death was caused by breast cancer or adenocarcinoma. “In this case we have the proof 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.