Cubanet.org, Ernesto Perez Chang, Havana, 28 July 2015 – Between the years 2004 and 2007, 65 children from the Los Sitios neighborhood in Central Havana, 7 to 10 years of age, underwent testing in order to determine their degree of lead poisoning. The research, conducted by a team of researchers from the Cuban National Institute of Health, Epidemiology and Microbiology (INHEM), found that 46.2% of the children exceeded the acceptable levels for adults according to the World Health Organization (10.0 mg/dl) and that 67.7% already were demonstrating learning difficulties associated with poisoning from this heavy metal.
According to the scientists, who recommended extending the investigation to other areas of the capital, the group of those affected presented with “diminished reading abilities, more limited vocabulary, poor reasoning, very slow reactions and poor psychomotor coordination.” Also, concern about the long term consequences was raised due to lead exposure being associated not only with reduction in academic performance but with changes in hearing, behavior, low self esteem, suicide attempts, depressive syndromes, aggression, and even mental retardation or death.
Perhaps because the research involved some “taboo topics” in the official public debate like childhood, health and the poor living conditions of Cubans, the results were not repeated in national press outlets, even though they were published in issue number 47(2) of 2009 of the Cuban Magazine of Health and Epidemiology [found at http://scielo.sld.cu; most of the studies mentioned here are available on the internet], and years before, in 2003, the INHEM magazine itself had brought to light a study1 by several of its researchers about lead levels also in children in the Central Havana township, perhaps one of the most affected by the poor health-sanitation conditions and by its location in a highly contaminated area.
Works like the foregoing join a list of investigations developed by Cuban scientists who belong to official institutions which signal the catastrophic effects of the island’s ineffective environmental policy, especially because of the link they observe with direct damage to human health.
Official Sources Note the Problem
In early 2015, the first issue of the digital magazine Science on Your PC, corresponding to January-March, published the extract from a dissertation2 by a group of researchers from the University of the East in Santiago, Cuba, about the low risk-perception and disinformation on the part of the residents of fishing communities about heavy metal contamination in the waters of the bay and surrounding areas.
According to the study, even though the Santiago Bay ecosystem is highly contaminated, there exists no government strategy to curb the negative effects of the heavy metals on the health of the residents of the city. Similarly, the inhabitants and even the fishing cooperative workers receive no information about the toxicity of the waters and the foods that they extract from them.
Santiago is, after the bay of Havana, the most poisoned on the island, and several sources discharge contamination into it such as the Antonio Maceo Thermoelectric Center, the November 30 Forming Company Electroplating Plant, the Celia Sanchez Textile Company, the repair workshops of the Electric Company and the Polygraphic. All use the principal rivers and their tributaries to discharge wastes without any effective filtration.
Despite this, according to the research, in the area “everyone claims that they have never been kept from fishing (…) This prohibition on fishing has been imposed only in the event of an outbreak of diarrheal illnesses and, of course, in the case of a closed season as with shrimp. (…) None of those interviewed from the fishing grounds knows about the heavy metals; they have not even heard this term.”
People from other regions of the country, also visibly affected by pollution, demonstrate equal ignorance about the phenomenon. The government’s policies of concealment in most cases are due to economic strategies, as deduced by those investigations that link cancer levels to the degree of contamination of the waters in mining or highly industrialized areas.
In the research report “Cleaner Production Strategy for the INPUD Galvanic Factory” (2006)3, the authors, belonging to the Central University of Las Villas, recognize that the main factor that impeded the design of a filtration system for heavy metals and toxic residues in the galvanic factory of the National Industry Producing Domestic Appliances (INPUD) was the impossibility of developing means of environmental protection because these raised the costs of production, a luxury that the Cuban economy could not afford, much less in the middle of the program called “Energetic Revolution” promoted by Fidel Castro, where he required them to commit to producing 350,000 pressure cookers benefitting the “Battle of Ideas.”
According to the researchers, at that time, “the treatment at the end of the pipe [filtration of pollution discharged into rivers and reservoirs] was improving the contamination problem but not reducing the costs [of production],” in a factory that employed Czech technology from 1964, “with very deteriorated technology and obvious obsolescence.”
In 2001, the factory had put into operation a wastewater treatment plant, but at the same time, it encountered construction problems because of which chrome and nickel wastes continued to be discharged directly into a small stream and from this to the Arroyo Grande dam, belonging to the Rio Sagua watershed with an area of more than 2,000 km².
This discharge into the groundwaters of the region could be related to the high levels of cancer that was reported by the province of Villa Clara where the highest incidence of cases on the island is recorded, according to statistics from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health itself.
In that regard, a report entitled “Contribution to Environmental Management in the Context of Urban Agricultural Production in the City of Santa Clara,” carried out between January and February of 2009 by a group of authors from the Provincial Meteorological Center and the Agricultural Research Center of the Central University of Las Villas, found high concentrations of lead, cadmium, nickel and other harmful substances in the soils and waters of several urban agriculture production systems in the city of Santa Clara. On comparing them to the standard established by Cuban regulation NC-493, from 2006, it was observed that “in organic gardens the concentrations of heavy metals were greater (…) with possible risk in some cases for human health.”
Similar studies, but focused on the petroleum areas of Boca de Jaruco in Santa Cruz del Norte and in a town near a goldmine on the Island of Youth, show that one of the fundamental reasons that the investigations are not disseminated and that urgent measures are not taken is the government’s economic interests.
In 2003, the magazine Earth and Space Sciences [Vol. 4, pp. 27-33], published the study “Arsenic and Heavy Metals in the Waters in the Area of Delita, Island of Youth, Cuba,” by a group of scientists from the Geophysical and Astronomical Institute and from the National Hydraulic Resources Institute.”
The text speaks of “a reduction in the maximum permissible limit for arsenic in drinking water,” which had unleashed the onset of chronic illnesses like cancer in people who had ingested drinking water with lethal concentrations of arsenic for long periods.
Populations from Batey de la Mina and from the Delita goldmine in the southeast of the Island of Youth, were and are exposed to arsenic concentrations higher than the detectable limit. In the Manantial La Mina station alone were recorded values that exceed the Cuban regulation of 50 mg/L-1 as well as the World Health Organization guideline of 10 mg/L-1.
The “Benign” Purpose of the Studies
In spite of these alarming measurements, according to what the investigators themselves expressed, all the clinical studies that have been carried out in the area by governmental agencies interested in the territory’s tourist development were for the express purpose of demonstrating the “therapeutic benefits of Delita’s waters and sludges” and not to connect the appearance and behavior of diverse illnesses with the ingestion and external use of arsenical waters.
The group of Cuban researchers is aware of the toxic impact on residents’ health in the so-called “special township” that, in recent years, has demonstrated a rising trend in mortality rates from cerebro-vascular diseases, notably exceeding other regions of the country: “The clinic where the residents of Batey de la Mina, the Argelia Victoria People’s Council No. 6, are treated, has shown a marked increase in the years 1994, 1996 and 1999.”
“If one considers,” continues the final report of the study, “the transit time of the underground waters from Delita, which is 13 years (…) and subtract those years from the date of the first increase in deaths from this cause (1994), the resulting date is 1981, which marks the beginning of the decade in which the most important exploration studies were carried out in the mine, as well as the drainage and direct dumping of the underground waters on the surface (1982), showing some possible relationship between these events. (…) Furthermore, although there exists no detailed study by clinics and areas that indicate the behavior of those dead from malignant tumors, this condition constitutes the main cause of death in adults as well as of premature death in the township, also with an upward trend in the last decade. Lung cancer (…) has shown a startling increase between the years 2000 and 2001 for the whole township.”
According to other researchers, Delita’s reservoir area is regarded as a uranium mining prospect, a considerable concentration of this element having been identified in a sample from the deep part.
The thousands of facts offered in the studies carried out by state scientific institutions themselves exceed the limits of these pages, and at the same time, contradict many aspects of the Cuban government’s official discourse that speaks of health programs and educational strategies but persists in ignoring a true environmental catastrophe that threatens to transform into another nightmare that new chapter of the Cuban revolution that has been referred to as “prosperous and sustainable socialism.”
1Aguilar Valdés, J. et al., “Niveles de plomo en sangre y factores asociados, en niños del municipio de Centro Habana”, Revista Cubana de Higiene y Epidemiología, 2003; 41(1).
2 Rodríguez Heredia, Dunia et al., “Educación ambiental vs. baja percepción acerca de la contaminación por metales pesados en comunidades costeras”, Ciencia en su PC, 2015, enero-marzo, 1, 13-28. Centro de Estudios Multidisciplinarios de Zonas Costeras (CEMZOC), Universidad de Oriente, Santiago de Cuba.
3 Cachaldora Francisco, Isidro Javier et al., “Estrategia de producción más limpia para el taller galvánico de INPUD”, Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas (2006).
Read author bio here: Ernest Perez Chang
Translated by Mary Lou Keel