Kettleman City, California: Low Income, Cleft Palates, and “Nothing Unusual”

It’s a small news story which hasn’t been well reported, and I might have missed it except that I happened to stumble upon it in 2009 and then I started following it. Starting in 2007, 6 babies out of 20 born in an 18 month period in Kettleman City, California were born with cleft lips or cleft palates. Some environmental activists started to cry foul, pointing to a hazardous waste facility near Kettleman City as a possible source of contamination which might be linked with the seemingly high rate of cleft lip and palate.

Cleft lip and/or palate occur in about one in every 700 births. Six out of 20 babies sounds unusual, right? Wrong, according to the California Department of Public Health, which says: “They’re all different and they suggest, or it doesn’t really suggest that they have a common cause. Because in general, we think each kind of birth defect has a different set of causes together that may be responsible. (source)”

This may well be true. Sometimes clusters do happen randomly and there are no causes. And it can be difficult to pin down all of the potential causes and environmental factors. But when you have a town with a hazardous waste facility as a major employer and unusual things start happening, it seems like there might be a correlation which is worth investigating. Even though the town is small. Even though the hazardous waste facility has a lot of political clout.

And do environmental exposures necessarily cause identical changes in fetal development? If being “all different” is an argument to rule out an environmental contaminant, why is it that babies born to women who took thalidomide during pregnancy were also “all different”? Certainly, they shared commonalities, but they were also very distinct from each other; taking thalidomide during pregnancy didn’t guarantee only one outcome. Seeing cleft lips and/or palates in 6/20 babies born in an 18 month period would seem to suggest that there is a common thread linking those mothers and that there is a chance that a cluster phenomenon is occurring.

The thing about Kettleman City is that it’s troubling, demographically. Almost 93% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. Roughly 44% of the population lives below the poverty line. There are some serious income disparities; there’s a $16,619 median income for men versus a $10,179 median income for women. It’s a poor, primarily Spanish speaking community.

And that makes alarm bells ring in my head, because if there’s one thing California is very, very good at, it’s ignoring the needs and concerns of low income Californians. Even if the cleft lips and palates aren’t being caused by the Waste Management facility, I think that they are clearly a cause for concern and that more investigation might be a good idea. If it’s not the Waste Management facility, there might be other environmental factors going on. If this kind of thing was happening in an area like Marin, which is predominantly white, English speaking, and wealthy, there would be an uproar accompanied with demands to find out what is going on, and why.

Of course, Marin would also never house a hazardous waste facility, because there are numerous low income communities in California upon which such facilities can be foisted. In fact, some communities will welcome the extra income and the presence of a large employer who does things like donating to the schools. Low income communities in California literally compete for toxic waste from wealthy California communities.

As abby recently pointed out, “poverty has the greatest negative impact on health.” In her post, she discussed the increased risk of environmental exposure to harmful substances for people living in poverty, and that’s really highlighted across the United States, not just in California. The dirty but necessary things we have in this country, like industrial facilities, hazardous waste dumps, manufacturing facilities, and so forth, are predominantly located in poor communities.

In the Bay Area, for example, the refineries are in Richmond, not Berkeley or San Francisco or Marin, all wealthier communities. The manufacturing facilities in Oakland happen to be in Oakland’s poorest communities, not up in the Oakland Hills, where wealthy residents live. Set up an epidemiology map and overlay it on a map of communities coded by income and the way they match up is nothing short of eerie. If you are poor in the United States, you are more likely to be living close to a source of environmental toxins because it is all you can afford.

I lived on top of a Superfund Site in the Bay Area, and now I live a block away from a severely contaminated former industrial site. I wipe dioxin-laden dust off my bookshelves every day because it blows and blusters in through every crack in my house. I didn’t live in either of these sites by choice, I live in them because it is what I can afford. If the choice is between living on top of ground contaminated with dioxins, PCBs, lead, and radioactive materials and living nowhere at all…what would you choose?

And when people in these communities start to get sick, when clusters do start appearing, it is ignored. Or people are told that they knew about the danger (not true) and that they could have avoided it (by what, moving? Where?) and that the community is responsible for cleaning it up (with what money?) and sending the toxic materials somewhere else (another, poorer community, perhaps?). My neighboring town of Willits, heavily contaminated with chromium by Remco, fought for years to address the issue until the cause was taken up by Erin Brokavitch.

For every Erin Brokavitch in the world, there are 100 other towns which need help. Like Sierra Vista, Arizona, where there’s a leukemia cluster baffling and infuriating local residents while government representatives insist that there are no environmental causes. What’s happening in Kettleman City is repeated at varying degrees of scale all over the United States and it’s rarely reported or discussed.

10 Comments

  1. Regarding the siting of environmentally blightful (if that’s a word) sites, much the same is true here in the UK too. I don’t know of anything as egregious as the Kettleman City waste facility, but if you travel on the main line through south London from Croydon to London Bridge station you’ll see a great big waste incineration plant on the right just after the last station (New Cross Gate) and you can see the same thing on the left if you’re on the line in from Kent. It just so happens that New Cross and Bermondsey are also relatively impoverished areas although the plant isn’t right in the middle of housing, but even so, they wouldn’t stick that in the leafy suburbs.

  2. While I agree with the basics of this message, I do think we have to be careful about how we say those things. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of casting disability as a tragedy and these children as somehow damaged or defective. I’m actually disappointed to see some of that here. (And comparing cleft palate to leukemia, a potentially fatal disease? Really?) There should be a way to talk about clusters without invoking this kind of thinking.

  3. i read this as an illustration of how environmental racism can result in significantly higher rates of disabilities – whether cleft palate, leukemia, respiratory damage, lupus, or any of the number of diseases and disabilities that have been linked to environmental pollutants – and how those environmental problems tend to be resolved in favor of corporations when the individuals affected are racial minorities and/or poor. i’m not sure how raising or discussing this issue either casts those affected as “defective” or implies that all diseases/disabilities caused by this environmental pollution are equal or equivalent.

  4. Politicalguineapig

    Melukhia: Do you know if any of the families were related? I think cleft palates are congenital, but there might be a genetic angle.
    Sarah: I personally think this is a case of ‘unwarranted environmental interference.’ Cleft palates can make life rather difficult, even with surgical procedures. And it might be a precursor of more serious congenital conditions that may manifest in subsequent generations.

  5. Also worth mentioning is how frequently these kinds of waste dumps, including nuclear waste dumps, get shoved onto Native reservations, affecting the health of indigenous peoples.

  6. Discussions of the issue can very, very easily turn into a load of obvious ableism, and even careful discussions like these centers the “normal” body as ideal. The implied idea is often, these children should have been “normal.” It’s problematic. We should be able to talk about environmental racism and classism without perpetuating the idea that being non-disabled is the ideal.

  7. Except that that’s not what’s going on here, Sarah, and you know that no contributors on this site believe that disabled children should be labelled “defective” or less than human.

    The belief that people with disability are people is entirely reconcilable with the belief that poisoning people is wrong. When criminal and negligent activity by business and government causes an increased financial burden, increased pain, and increased chance of death (and cleft palate raises that risk also, particularly if you have limited access to resources): that activity is wrong.

    I’m disabled. I know damn well that disability doesn’t make me less-than. I still don’t want someone poisoning my food and water supply, or breaking in and cutting my limbs off, or causing me a traumatic brain injury; and I expect justice and recompense should those things be done to me.

    Can we move on and talk about environmental racism and classism please?

  8. Yes, Sarah, and we should also be able to talk about ableism without all having to envision all disabled/chronically ill persons as “good cripples”. Ceiling Cat forbid that anyone ever resent being disabled or having a chronic condition! My stars and garters! You mean to tell me that not all of us are completely happy with every aspect of having a body outside of the societal norm? Should I just STFU and go home now on my own blog? OK, then, just checking.

    Yes, we should be careful to not paint the “normal” body as ideal, but we should not be quick to scold everyone for facing the fact that not everyone is eternally or universally satisfied with what has been handed to them. Some people are not in fact excited about the fact that they have to navigate a world that isn’t designed to accept them (or for those of us that once were able to and were then forcefully ejected from it). No, having a disability or illness is not the end of the world and not a tragic thing to be lamented, but that doesn’t mean we all embrace it.

    You will excuse me if I am not thrilled that I can no longer swim thousands of meters a day or that my Navy career was pried from my aching hands. I can imagine that some children might feel the same way. They are not a monolith, and may not all be inspirational little darlings who are happy to overcome their special challenges.

  9. I think I’m being misunderstood and mischaracterized here, so I won’t continue this line of discussion. I’m a bit hurt by this and was honestly not trying to derail. I am coming from this perspective having witnessed children with my disability being paraded around by parents with signs like “I am evidence of harm” around their necks. I realize that this is not what this post is doing, but I thought it was a danger worth bringing up. Apparently not.

  10. Politicalguineapig

    OuyangDan: You pretty much described my Grandpa, who was born with a cleft palate. I’ve heard him grumble a number of times about his childhood. Kids are pretty cruel, and those kids in California are probably going to go through the same tunnel o’ hell that he did. Same state, different time, same old crap.
    I look up to him, but I wouldn’t want any kid to have to face the social/ medical hell that he went through just because they got born in the wrong place, to parents the authorities studiously ignore. (Unless the parents happen to do something the authorities dislike, like talking back to doctors, being in the wrong neighborhood while brown, insert ridiculous excuse here.)
    Not trying to hate on kids, I know some adorable kids, but most of the ones I met in elementary school were monsters.