Polluted lake causing health problems for local indigenous

Mexico's largest fresh-water lake is also one of its most endangered. Lake Chapala covers about 1100 kilometers west of Mexico City and it has been used as a dump for waste, ranging from toxic chemicals to raw sewage.

Officials say the fish and water from the lake are no longer safe, but trying to change the habits of local residents is proving difficult. CGTN’s Alasdair Baverstock has details.

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Ezequiel Gonzalez, who recently turned 22, has never been able to raise himself from his bed and his younger brother Armando has chronic kidney disease, but the two are not the only ones suffering.

In their impoverished community beside polluted Lake Chapala in western Mexico, more than half of the young people, between eight and 20, are sick.

It is a fact the boys’ mother blames on the water they drink from Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, something her Coca indigenous people have always done.

“When I was pregnant I drank water from the tap, and we didn’t know the water wasn’t good for drinking,” said Catalina Gonzalez, the mother of the two boys.

Catalina says she is going to put her life savings into dialysis treatment for her younger son, but such a regimen will only stave off illness and the only way to save him would be to donate a kidney.

Environmentalists say Lake Chapala has been an industrial waste dumping ground for factories across Mexico for nearly 15 years. The high concentration of mercury and other heavy metals in the waters has contributed to birth defects and kidney disease on the local community.

One study into Lake Chapala’s water by a local ecologist found water mercury concentrations beside the town of Agua Caliente over 300 times the maximum set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

But it  is not the only physical illness that plagues the community. According to a study led by Felipe Lozano at the University of Guadalajara, 40 percent of schoolchildren in Agua Caliente have developed cognitive disabilities; unable to differentiate between between white and primary colors.

“There is a level of contamination here, which does not exceed international standards, but does damage to children who are malnourished,” Lozano said. “And in this community, fish is eaten four times a week. So there is an intake of toxic metals. These problems don’t occur in the regional capital, where the people are better educated and better fed, it’s a case of marginalization.”

The authorities understand the problem, but getting the locals to take notice is another matter.

“Trying to interfere in the community’s health is sometimes to prohibit what they have done for so long,” said Dr. Napoleon Sanchez at the Chapala Medical Center. “To arrive and tell them not to drink the Chapala water, they say, ‘well, it’s what I have always done.'”

Community nutritional educational programs are beginning to show results and there is hope for Chapala’s indigenous, but with no immediate plans to put a stop to the contaminants pumped into the lake, it may be a case of damage limitation.