Beth Alvarado has a lovely and sad essay at Guernica about the cancers that killed her husband and much of his family who lived in a neighborhood on the south side of Tucson heavily polluted by a plume of trichloroethylene, used to clean airplane parts at the nearby airport and industrial airfield. The geology beneath Tucson can store a lot of water, but it also means it’s quite susceptible to chemical contamination.
After his family had lived there for a decade or so, people in the neighborhood started dying. Clear patterns didn’t emerge, but sometimes several people in one family would die. Finally, the city tested the water. Some estimates showed TCE contamination at 1,000 times the federal health standards. They closed wells. There were court cases. Red lines were drawn around the housing developments, housing developments where 75 percent of the residents were Hispanic and low-income; once the developments were red-lined, it was impossible to sell those houses, so people stayed where they were. The cleanup began, but it was already too late. On Evelina Street alone, near the school Fernando’s siblings attended, near Mission Manor Park where they played, and near the swimming pool where they swam in the summers, thirty-four cancer cases were documented. Several families now have only one surviving member.
You don’t have to drink TCE or ingest it. TCE can enter your system through your skin when you bathe. When Fernando’s brother Eugene first saw a doctor for hemochromatosis, a rare liver condition that can be caused by exposure to chemicals, he told the doctor that he had lived in the area of Tucson that was affected by TCE. The doctor said he’d have to have complete exposure, like falling into a vat of chemicals, for that to be responsible for his condition. I did have complete exposure, Eugene said. I bathed in it for decades.
Eventually, they found a tumor growing on Eugene’s liver. He had a liver transplant.
TCE is a volatile organic compound, my friend, an environmental engineer, tells me. TCE wants to rise, it wants to be in the air instead of the water. It enters your body when you breathe its vapors in the air or when you drink water contaminated with it. TCE also enters your body through your skin, especially if you have cracks or abrasions or cuts. The first exposure to TCE, and the first drink of that water, initiates a metabolic process that can result in lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and kidney and liver cancers. TCE is thought to act as a metabolic trigger. In other words, if you have a predisposition to a form of cancer, let’s say liver cancer, TCE increases your likelihood of developing that cancer, although it may not manifest for decades.
The effects of these chemicals can take so long to manifest themselves that it becomes very hard to receive compensation from the polluters and most people do not. That most of the people suffering in this Tucson neighborhood are Latino should be expected as the correlation between pollution exposure and race is well-documented and is a classic example of environmental racism.