By Maria Mecedes Pertuz
According to studies carried out by specialist in the city of Santa Marta, in the last seven years the cases of congenital abnormalities have been appearing with unprecedented frequency in the new born babies of apparently healthy mothers.
Although many different factors might be behind these abnormalities, several studies under the direction of doctors Jose Pedrosa Vargas, and Emileth Montenegro and the chemist Armando Lacera Rua, with the collaboration of other specialist, point to the role of environmental degradation, particularly in the region known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and surrounding areas which in the past seven years has been subjected to chemical agents for the eradication of illicit crops.
This is why, in the face of this predicament, the inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada and its areas of influences, have asked government officials for a right to a more comfortable and healthier way of life, and to clearly identify the cause of this ecological deterioration that the Sierra Nevada has undergone and the way if has generated, according to these specialists’ investigation, a significant increase in health afflictions in the zone.
In the Sierra Nevada, primarily in its zone of influence “the banana zone” ,the use of fungicides and agrochemicals, such as Paraquat, Diquat, and even certain hormonal chemicals containing Dioxin ,which according to the chemist Armando Lacera Rua , are highly toxic health hazards, has been consistent and progressive. The mixture of these two herbicides was used in the Vietnam war and known as the greatly-feared “Agent Orange ”. Other chemicals such as insecticides, organoclorados, organofosforados, DDT, Aldrin, Carbonatados, parathion, malation, and many more have also been applied in the zone. All of the above have been linked to harmful effects on humans and animals, they have been associated with gene mutation and carcinogenic and teratogenic repercussions responsible for abnormalities on fetal development.
Lacera Rua manifest that the emergence of these pathologies are tied to other factors or environmental tensor such as high contents of heavy metals —such as mercury, lead cadmium, nitrates ,phenols and residues of pesticides— in water sources, ,the presence of radioactive elements and the failure to control exposure to the sunlight. Other factors could be carbon monoxide oxidize nitrogen, and lachrymal irritating agents resulting from the high concentration of automotive combustion coming from our localities.
It is also important to take into consideration , without becoming unnecessarily alarmed, the effects of the substances traditionally used by people as home remedies to induce abortions and which are actively present in the vegetables people eat.
As concerns the abnormalities detected during the past decade, the investigating doctor Jose Pedraa Vargas sustains that the cause “is definitely not genetic” it is environmental, since the import of other factors has been observed, as in the case of the toxic substances used to fumigate or leftover from the processing of toxic agents such as cocaine.
He added that there are other possible causes that cannot be dismissed such as alcohol, caffeine, and anti-thyroid drugs that pass the placenta barrier and affects the fetus that during the first 22 weeks of gestation depends basically on the mother.
Consuming this type of drugs block the thyroid hormone synthesis and, in the case of pregnant women, it also blocks the fetus’s thyroid hormone synthesis Other factors such as cigarette smoking, are also believed to cause abnormalities, the same goes for toxins such as cocaine and other hallucinogenics.
Ii is to be noted that although there might be other factors behind these abnormalities research carried out points to the high incidence of the chemical products used to fumigate ,since systematically the clinical cases seen in the Hospital Central de Santa Marta (the starting point for this research) are those of,mothers who inhabit the area of influence of the Sierra Nevada National Park; namely, the inhabitants of Gaira,Bonda Guachaca and Minca, areas of intense agriculture activity where agrochemicals are commonly used, without any foresight nor protection of any type, to eradicate weeds and destroy the illicit crops.
The other patients that have given birth to children with defects come from the villages of Cienaga, Fundacion, Puebloviejo, El Reten ,and from the banana-growing zone in the Magdalena department and Mingueo in the Guajira department.
Doctor Pedraa Vargas highlighted the fact that although the aforementioned urban areas are not as close to the mountain range as the city of Santa Marta and its surrounding areas ,the aqueducts of these towns are fed by the rivers that come from the afflicted snowed-capped mountain range.
Lastly, Doctor Pedraza pointed out the most commonly observed abnormalities are neural tube deficiencies, the absence of brain cells, microcefalia, encefaloceles, mielomeningocele, and meningocele. These last two afflictions affect both the spinal cord and nerves, generally at the level of the lumbar region.
Another abnormality observed is that of the digestive tube , as in the case of closed anal tract, which make it impossible for the new born to expulse fecal excesses; congenital intestinal obstruction; abdominal walls defects due to stomach-region deficiencies; heart deficiencies. “Raisin stomach” syndrome, which comprises the lack, deficiency or congenital hipoplasia of abdominal muscles; and abnormalities of the urinary tract, characterized by oversized bladders and dilated urethra prostates .
Other abnormalities observed include cranial-facial defects as in congenital abnormalities of the head, the neck the more common deformities being those in the outer ear, cleft lip, sunken palate, cataract, sparse eye brow and eyelashes.
It is important to point out that, according to the pediatrician, doctor Fajid Atia Valencia, who participated in the research on deformities, the incidence of birth defects has been consistently on the rise for the past 6 to 7 years “When I worked in the old and forgotten San Juan de Dios Hospital one did not see as many new born with birth defects. There were far fewer cases and these were not as alarming.”
Finally in the face of rising incidence of birth defects, it is urgent for the nation’s hospitals and medical centers whether they be public or private, to take matters into hand by launching a campaign to modernize their statistical records. so that, thanks to improved and more accurate information, actions can be taken to prevent this type of abnormalities.
During the period studied —from June 1992 to December 1996— the Hospital Central de Santa Marta registered 12,828 births, of which 165 patients presented all together 216 abnormalities, a figure far above the average..
The birth defects registered are as follows: 77 children presented neural tube deficiencies , 34 digestive tube deficiencies, 18 heart pathologies, 11 cases of abdominal wall syndrome; 20 craniofacial defects, 34 muscle skeleton, 6 new born with breathing problems and 16 with other minor pathologies; a total of 216 children.
As concerns the place of residence, 112 patients come from Santa Marta, 33 from Cienaga,19 from Fundacion, 1 from Minca, 4 from Guachaca, 18 from Gaira, 6 Bonda, 9 from the department of the Guajiira and 14 from localities which were not identified.
As concerns the mothers’ ages, the researchers observed that incongruously the greater number of mothers that gave birth to children with birth defects were between the ages of 15 to 20, followed by women of 21 to 25, followed by 25 to 30 and in last place from 26 to 30, as opposed to what generally holds true which is that this tendency is more often observed in women 35 or older.
In 1994 the tendency observed was that women giving birth for the first time had children with neural tube deficiencies while mothers giving birth to their 2nd or 3rd child presented a higher risk of having children with digestive tube deficiencies. The general tendency, however, is that the highest risk among the women surveyed is to be observed among mothers giving birth to their first born and second child .