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Area’s industrial legacy poses health risks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Maybe it’s just the power of suggestion, but my throat felt raw and my lungs felt irritated after sitting in Esther Abeyta’s living room in Albuquerque’s San Jose neighborhood for an hour talking about the area’s Superfund sites, the tank farms full of gasoline and other petrochemicals, the asphalt plant, the concrete aggregate company.

Abeyta’s home belonged to her grandmother. Her mother lives two blocks away. Her property south of Downtown backs up to the railroad tracks that run north and south through the city. Tanker cars were parked by her backyard. Diesel-fueled train engines idle on the tracks by her house five or six days a week, sometimes for hours at a time.

Abeyta served as her neighborhood association’s president, and now she and her husband, Steve, are working to understand the environmental condition of the area that may or may not be shortening their neighbors’ lives.

The San Jose neighborhood is bordered on its west by the railroad tracks that run north and south through Albuquerque. Tank cars are parked next to residents’ backyards. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

The San Jose neighborhood is bordered on its west by the railroad tracks that run north and south through Albuquerque. Tank cars are parked next to residents’ backyards. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

The raw data are truly frightening. A study called Place Matters, put together by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., says that in Bernalillo County the difference in life expectancy between census tracts can be measured in decades. Life expectancy in some census tracts in the South Broadway area, where San Jose is located, is from 66 to 70 years. In parts of the Northeast Heights and on the Southwest Mesa life expectancy is from 85 to 94 years.

Low birth weights as a share of all births can range from 12.3 percent to 17.5 percent in some neighborhoods to from 1.4 percent to 4.7 percent in other neighborhoods.

Place Matters measures “community-level health risks,” which include factors such as “educational attainment, violent crime rates, foreclosure rates, unemployment rates, and the percentage of overcrowded households” found in a census tract.

The index Place Matters created to measure those factors is worst in the San Jose area and other neighborhoods in the county. It is best in the far Northeast Heights, in the foothills, and in parts of the West Mesa.

Place Matters found that life expectancy is an average of 5.2 years shorter “in census tracts with the greatest concentration of environmental hazards.”

The density of environmental hazards in the San Jose area is 38 to 55 per square mile, according to the study. Parts of Albuquerque have a density of hazards from 0 to 4 per square mile.

Here’s the rub: Correlation does not imply causation. We can know that there are years worth of difference in life expectancy and birth weights among populations without knowing why and, therefore, what we should do about it. Health-policy experts have established that people living in poverty generally have worse health indicators than people of means, but we don’t necessarily know why that is.

Place Matters establishes some important base-line data, but what should we, the people, do with it?

Esther Abeyta is aware of the causation question. She has observed a lot of disturbing things over the years living in San Jose. She wonders what the tank farms and railroad cars are putting in the air and water. She suspects there are problems, but she doesn’t know for sure.

She and Steve have started collecting air samples with the help of Global Community Monitor, a nonprofit in California that helps communities assess their environmental quality. The samples contain chlorobenzene, ethanol, acetone and toluene. Steve Abeyta says these are chemicals associated with petrochemicals. One could guess how these chemicals got in the air, but no one actually knows.

“They meet government guidelines,” he said. “But here’s the thing. If you go to neighborhoods in another part of town, the air is fine.”

Samples they took to capture elemental carbons that could be emitted by diesel-fueled engines were “high enough to be associated with an excess risk of cardiovascular mortality two and three days post exposure and an excess risk of cardiovascular and respiratory hospitalization on the day of exposure,” Esther Abeyta said.

The anecdotal evidence abounds. Time was the stench of South Valley stockyards, slaughterhouses and the city sewage-treatment plant overwhelmed San Jose and other inner-city neighborhoods. When those facilities were either closed or cleaned up, Abeyta said neighbors started noticing the smell of sulfur which had been masked by the other odors.

Last year there were 58 kids at East San Jose Elementary School suffering from asthma. “That’s a high number,” Esther Abeyta said. “You ask yourself where that is coming from.”

Neighbors suffer from cardiac and respiratory problems, there seems to be more cancer than there should be, and people find they are constantly having to wash some sort of chemical gunk off of their cars. Some neighbors sleep wearing masks to filter the air they breathe.

San Jose was settled about 1830, according to a sector development plan the Abeytas provided. The area was all agricultural until the last 1800s when the railroad came through town. Industry tended to sprout along railroad tracks in the early- to mid-20th century so businesses could roll product out the door and onto rail cars for shipment. Residents worked for the railroad and the industry that used the railroad for shipping. Farmers became wage earners and the farms disappeared.

When railroading faded as an industry in Albuquerque, wages declined. At least 60 percent of the people living in the area have incomes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, according to Place Matters. The area around San Jose was already zoned for industrial use, so even as some businesses were closing, auto scrap yards and petrochemical storage depots found homes there.

Correlation and causation. Has Place Matters merely confirmed once again that poor people have worse health outcomes, for any number of reasons? Or is there something more going on here?

I asked people at the state Health Department if they knew the answer. They do not, though they think they may have the data that might allow them find out. The staff responsible for such analyses is small and very busy, but they will try.
— This article appeared on page 18 of the Albuquerque Journal