Arsenic In The Water Leaves Its Traces Among Mexico's Poor

In northern Mexico's Comarca Lagunera region, rising arsenic levels in the groundwater are leaving many residents sick and disabled. The culprit? Widespread dairy farming, which is sucking the area's aquifers dry. Those who can'

Be careful not to drink the water (andresmh)
Be careful not to drink the water (andresmh)
Frédéric Saliba

TORREONDespite the suffocating desert heat, Juan Jaquez Muñoz shivers under his covers. In his old house in the small village of Horizonte, in the North of Mexico, this villager has been stuck in bed since his left leg was amputated a month earlier. "The arsenic in the water poisoned me," says Jaquez Muñoz, who is 66 but looks two decades older.

The man's plight is hardly an isolated case. Residents throughout the region of Comarca Lagunera, between the states of Durango and Coahuila, are threatened by the toxic substance, which is present in the aquifers. The region is the country's principle milk producer, and agricultural over-exploitation of the underground water resources is blamed for the arsenic in the water.

In Horizonte, which is also a drug trafficking territory, there are plenty of amputees. "The arsenic in my blood first affected my toenails, and then my whole leg went black," says Manuel Suñiga, a 60-year-old former day-laborer.

Gonzalo Garcia Vargas, a toxicologist at the University of Durango, cites epidemiology studies to explain that "the consumption of water rich in arsenic, over a long period of time, causes the appearance of rough patches on the palm of the hand and the ball of the foot." Arsenicism, as the condition is called, also causes circulatory and reproduction problems, is a risk factor for cancers of the skin, liver, kidney, prostrate and bladder, and, as was the case for Suñiga, can cause gangrene of the foot, according to Garcia Vargas.

Approximately 1.5 million affected

A study by Mexico's National Water Commission (Conagua) found that the concentration of arsenic in the subterranean water in the region reaches 300 micrograms per liter, which is 30 times the maximum established by the World Health Organization.

"The reduction in the level of the groundwater has caused the amount of arsenic, which occurs naturally in the water, to increase. The phenomena has also spread toxic salts into the immense network of pools underneath the Comarca Lagunera," explains Adrian Ortega, a hydrogeology specialist at the University of Mexico.

Recognized since the 1940s in rural areas, the phenomenon has since expanded to the cities of Torreon and Gomez Palacio. This health and environmental crisis, which has been caused by human activities, now affects more than 1.5 million residents.

"For years two dams have prevented the Nazas and Aguanaval rivers from feeding into the groundwater, which is being over-exploited by agriculture," Ortega says. Above ground, immense green fields of alfalfa used to feed the cows stand out against the otherwise semi-arid landscape. "The region is paying a colossal price to be the number one in milk production," says Victor Cabrera, a researcher at the Laguna Technological Institute.

Every day, 300,000 cows produce 7 million liters of milk, the majority of which goes to feed the Mexican dairy giant Grupo Lala. Other clients include Nestle and Danone. "To increase their fodder, the farmers are getting water from deeper and deeper in the zone, where there is very little precipitation," Cabrera explains. Every year, 1.1 billion cubic meters are taken from the groundwater, but only half of that quantity is replaced each year, according to Conagua. The recent drought that has affected the region for the past year and a half has only exacerbated the problem.

Failing to respond to the crisis

Critics say that so far, local authorities have simply ignored the problem. "Nothing has been done, for years and years on end, because of pressure from the farm lobby and from the large dairy companies," says Francisco Valdes, president of an association for the protection of the Nazas river. Valdes, an engineer and environmental activist, campaigns for reduced milk production.

"Out of the question," responds Carlos Fernandez, owner of an ultra-modern dairy farm in Matamoros. The facility has 1,600 cows and is equipped with fans and humidity machines to cool the animals down. "The solution to the crises is to better manage the region's water resources," he says. Environmental organizations, on the other hand, say there simply needs to be more water. One possibility, they argue, would be to use water from dammed reservoirs to fill up the aquifers and thus dilute the arsenic they contain. "But our suggestions have been blocked because of water concessions that have been given to rich farmers," Valdes says.

One thing residents can do to protect themselves is buy bottled water. But many simply can't afford to. "Here, almost everybody drinks water from the tap," says Maria Socoro, a 45-year-old resident of a dusty village called Sofia, about 50 kilometers from Torreon. Despite the risks, Socoro, a widow with three children, continues to poison herself, day after day.

The government in Durango has announced it will begin distributing tens of thousands of water filters for use in residents' homes. "But then you have the problem of collecting all of the used filters," Valdes complains. In Coahuila, government started building filtration systems this past January near the nine most contaminated wells in Torreon. "The goal is to get rid of the arsenic in the water before it is distributed," explains Eglantina Canales, who is in charge of environmental matters for the local government.

Another sign of hope: In February "access to clean water for domestic consumption" was inscribed in the Mexican Constitution as a basic right. There's no reason to believe, however, that the benefits of the reform will trickle down anytime soon to the residents of Comarca Lagunera.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - andresmh

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The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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