Kettleman City: Mothers Demanding a Healthy Future - Women's Foundation California

By Ellen Sloan

This is the third blog post by Board Member Ellen Sloan, who attended Sowing Change 2010, a funder’s tour of the Central Valley.

We walk into the community room at Kettleman City Community Center and are greeted by the sight of a few soft-spoken women and a couple toddlers scampering about. Little did I know how profoundly affected I would be by this small gathering of souls.

Kettleman City, 175 miles from Los Angeles, has been in the news (New York Times, CNN, Mother Jones, Fresno Bee) lately for the high incidence of babies born with birth defects, primarily cleft palates. Over the last 3 years 13 babies have been born with birth defects in a town of just 1,500 people. The exact cause of these tragedies is unknown and may never be known.

Many of the residents work in the nearby fields where toxic pesticides are regularly used. They come home from work in their field clothes and refuse to let their kids hug them until they have shed their work clothes at the door, afraid to contaminate their children and their home. The town is surrounded by fields where the pesticides and fertilizers drift across the road into the residential area. The two municipal wells are contaminated with arsenic and benzene. And up on the Hill is Chem Waste, the largest toxic waste dump west of the Mississippi. With all these sources of toxic pollutants it is impossible to determine why these babies are born with birth defects.

In fact it wasn’t until Greenaction, an environmental justice non- profit, did a door to door health survey in 2007 of Kettleman that they discovered this “cluster” of birth defects.  Many of the residents did not even know other babies in their small town of 1,500 had been born with physical deformities.

There is an emerging conceptual framework called cumulative impact. Rather than doing studies of the impact of each chemical alone, it takes a look at the cumulative impact of everything from air pollution, contaminated drinking water, poverty, poor health care and proximity to hazardous sites. In fact, Kettleman City has been called  the “poster child for cumulative impacts” because the residents’  health is compromised in so many ways. It is the cumulative effect of many factors that lead to tragedies such as these babies born with physical disabilities.

Aside from the science of all of this is the human impact. Two mothers stood up and told us their stories. The first mother held up a large picture of her son soon after he was born showing his cleft  palate. After numerous surgeries he is now an energetic toddler. The second mother also held up a large picture of her baby daughter who had numerous birth defects. This mother, like so many we met, made her way from Mexico across the border to the “land of opportunity” and  has worked hard to provide a better life for her children.  She named her daughter America.

America died in her mother’s arms when she was five months old.

Losing one of my daughters is my worst fear. I am humbled to realize the bravery of these women who have endured telling their stories and showing pictures of their babies to anyone who will listen. They are deeply committed to preventing these tragedies from happening to anyone else. At the same time, it is clear from listening to the residents — especially the young women who don’t have families yet — that they live with the fear that their babies will not be born healthy.

How can we not do what is within our power to spread the word and provide justice to the families of Kettleman City?

 Related Posts:


Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

This work is powered by you.

The feminist future we are building together in California is going to be built by all of us sharing our time, our money, and our skills.  Please consider contributing today.

Together We Are Unstoppable.

Sign up here to join our mailing list and receive updates about our programs, partnerships, and more!