The border between Mexico and the United States is an artificial line dividing a geographical region that is otherwise ecologically, economically, and culturally integrated. Despite its artificiality, the border between Mexico and the United States strongly affects the way environmental and human health problems are addressed in the region where these two nations meet. Historically, relations between the United States and Mexico have been unbalanced, with the former controlling vastly more monetary resources and technical expertise than the latter. Although Mexico's environmental laws are comparable to those of the United States, they are less consistently enforced. Similarly, the United States has conducted environmental assessments in its border states, but this is yet to be done in the Mexican border states. These imbalances have made it difficult to identify and mitigate existing environmental health problems and prevent new ones from arising in the border zone.
Today, international initiatives to address such problems are expanding. Among these are outreach efforts as part of the NIEHS Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP) to forge ties among researchers and policy makers in both countries. Efforts to strengthen Mexican environmental health expertise along the border are under way within SBRP programs at the University of Arizona (UA), Texas A&M University, and the University of California, San Diego. Although all three programs engage in cross-border projects and conduct basic research on contaminants of concern, the UA SBRP program emphasizes undergraduate, graduate, and community education as well.
The Lay of the Land
The border region extends just over 60 miles each way north and south of the boundary line and stretches 2,000 miles from east to west. Four U.S. states (Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas) and six Mexican states (Baha, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, and Tamaulipas) face each other across the invisible line. The region currently has a population of approximately 12 million, and the binational U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission estimates that number will double by 2025. The border zone has numerous environmental health problems, and these are expected to worsen as its population increases.
Arsenic occurs naturally in groundwater throughout the desert region, increasing the risk of diabetes mellitus, reproductive disorders, and bladder, skin, and lung cancers. Mine tailings--some 300,000 acres' worth in Arizona alone, according to A. Jay Gandolfi, a professor in the UA College of Pharmacy and Toxicology--leach metals including lead and mercury into surface waters. As a result, residents are threatened with anemia, convulsions, and learning and motor disabilities in the case of lead, and central nervous system damage (including tremors and confusion) and behavior and memory problems in the case of mercury.
In the border zone, agricultural workers are exposed to pesticides such as paraquat, atrazine, and 2,4-D through cultivation of apples, nuts, cotton, wheat, and other crops. Pesticides also contaminate water sources. According to the Pesticide Action Network North America, paraquat can cause pulmonary edema, kidney damage, and coma; atrazine, while not acutely toxic, may be an endocrine disruptor; and 2,4-D can trigger abdominal pain, nausea, skin and eye redness, and loss of consciousness, among other effects.
With increases in trade spurred by the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) has come more transboundary vehicle traffic--and waits of sometimes several hours at checkpoints. People waiting at these checkpoints are exposed to internal combustion products from idling engines, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which can retard growth and intelligence, induce cancer, and disrupt endocrine function.
NAFTA has also encouraged the growth of more than 3,000 factories (maquiladoras) along the border, which manufacture everything from pharmaceuticals to leather products to cell phones. These factories may use or generate hazardous materials such as solvents and heavy metals. Under NAFTA, until 2006 U.S. companies are required to transport their hazardous waste back to the United States for disposal. Mexico's National Institute of Ecology estimates that a million tons of hazardous waste cross the border every year. This large-scale passage of hazardous waste is "not a minor problem," says Gandolfi.
The UA SBRP program's outreach to Mexico is "an 'overnight success' that has taken ten years," says William Suk, director of the NIEHS SBRP. Two aspects of the outreach effort are crucial, Suk says. "One is the synergy of the research infrastructure on both sides of the border. The other is the clear realization on the part of policy makers on both sides of the border that these are real health and environmental issues that bear a direct impact on the well-being of their citizens."
At the UA College of Pharmacy and Toxicology, Gandolfi and professor Dean Carter have spent the last decade developing the U.S./Mexico Binational Center for Environmental Studies (BCES) in collaboration with their Mexican colleague, toxicologist Mariano E. Cebrián Garcia of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. UA recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mexican Ministry of Science and Technology to establish the BCES. The center will expand existing efforts to train Mexican researchers, assist in technology transfer, conduct collaborative research, and help border communities apply that research to improve environmental health within the border region.
In all, UA has been working on binational environmental health issues for nearly two decades, guided by Carter, the outgoing director of the UA SBRP program. With support from the NIEHS, the UA program has trained numerous Mexican toxicology students and conducted toxicology and risk assessment workshops in Mexico for Mexican officials and technical experts. Carter’s group has also developed a website (http://binational.pharmacy.arizona.edu/) featuring a downloadable basic environmental toxicology textbook written in Spanish. The textbook averages 40,000 hits per month, according to Gandolfi. Two more online Spanish-language textbooks are in development, one on risk assessment and the other on remediation techniques. The website, says Carter, "is really a whopping success" and is being used not only by the Mexican environmental health community, but also by similar communities throughout Latin America.
The Mexican federal government supports capacity building in the environmental sciences, according to Cebrián. Academics and policy makers are working hard to strengthen degree programs in toxicology and environmental health, both by enhancing courses within Mexican universities and by sending students to the UA program. The Mexican effort includes acquiring the latest biomedical and remediation technology to entice graduates trained in the United States to return to Mexico.
Cebrián also anticipates adding environmental studies and "green" technologies to Mexican engineering curricula and expanding environmental studies at universities in the border states. At present, many environmental studies programs are located in Mexico City and southern states, far from the border, which many Mexicans call the "frontier," emphasizing its distance from the nation's academic and political resources.
A Strong Footing to Solve Problems
Given the imbalances between the countries, it would be easy for the United States to act toward Mexico as if "we're your friendly neighbors to the north, and we know what's best," as Suk puts it. But the SBRP and BCES have stressed all along that "both sides have an equal footing," Suk says. As a result of this footing, Gandolfi says, UA was recently awarded a three-year U.S.-Mexico Training, Internship, Exchanges, and Scholarship grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which involves multiple colleges at UA associated with the SBRP as well as eight universities and institutes in Mexico. Gandolfi says, "This is the start of support from multiple sources to address our common environmental problems."
Carter credits the NIEHS for its strong support of the BCES and emphasizes that environmental health along the border "is a long-term problem and requires a long-term solution." The border's not going to get any smaller, says Carter--but neither is the commitment to identify, study, and mitigate threats to environmental health along that invisible, but very real, line.