The Kettleman City Babies – Part I

A  California Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Public Health report has exonerated pesticides and herbicides, the contaminated water, fumes from diesel trucks, and most of all the huge solid waste disposal facility just outside town from the cluster of babies born with birth defects in the poor farmworker community of Kettleman City, California.

Nope, none of that has anything to do with the abnormal incidence of birth defects states the December 2010 report. The birth defects are just a coincidence, an unsolved mystery. There is no cause. Nope.  Experts have spoken.

“While we wish there was an explanation for what caused the birth defects experienced by the children we studied in Kettleman City,” said California Department of Public Health Director Mark Horton, “our investigation finds that no common health or environmental factor links the cases.”

The birth defects are  just one of those funny damn things that pop up in the data sometimes.

Kettleman City is a largely Latino town of 1500, half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. You might have stopped there in the middle of what looks like nowhere for a snack or to fill up. Stay long enough and you can smell the chemicals sprayed on the fields that surround the town on three sides.

Coming along nicely are projects  to build a massive natural gas power plant 3 miles up the road from Kettleman City,  as well as to deposit 500,000 tons per year of Los Angeles sewage sludge on farmland outside of town.

But that’s not what’s put Kettleman City on the map. I started researching this story and I just can’t stop.

Between 30 and 64 babies are born  each year in Kettleman City. Since 1985 when California’s public health department began tracking birth defects, all babies born in the town were healthy, with one exception. But in the last three years, at least 11 babies have been born with serious birth defects. Three of those babies died; another was stillborn. Most of these children have cleft lips or palates, Down syndrome and serious heart defects.

From the report, page 5:  “Although the overall investigation found levels of pollutants in the air, water and soil of Kettleman City, the comprehensive investigation did not find a specific cause or environmental exposure among the mothers that would explain the increase in the number of children born with birth defects in Kettleman City.”

Could it be that they weren’t looking very hard? The investigators refused to look at the issue until ordered to by then Governor Schwarzenegger. And the result is a grudging, half-measures job that reeks of bias, even alteration of the actual numbers of birth defects.

The State ignored requests from community and environmental justice groups to conduct biomonitoring of the mothers and other residents to determine the types of chemicals in their bodily tissues and breast milk. We all absorb pollutants from many sources. Simple tests measure these levels. These tests were not done. Nor were other modern environmental forensic techniques suggested by Greenaction and People for Clean Air and Water (El Pueblo para El Aire y Agua Limpio) who have fought for years to make somebody listen.

The report discarded data on the babies who died from birth defects. Really?  Yes, concerned citizens, yes!

They were forced finally to stop blaming the mothers for unhealthy lifestyles which caused the birth defects. Apologies?  Snort! Don’t hold your breath.

Even though a door-to-door community health survey first discovered the birth defects and infant mortality problem, the State refused to conduct its own community health survey to officially determine the extent of birth defects and health problems in Kettleman City.

If you don’t look for problems, you sure don’t find them.

And you sure as hell don’t consider the cumulative effects of living in a cesspool of pollutants. Do you think that the combined effect of the pesticides with PCBs, hazardous wastes, diesel fumes, contaminated drinking water and poor air quality in the region might affect peoples’ bodies?  Ya think?

Please stick with me in future blogs.  I just can’t let this go. None of it can be told in 300 words.

You don’t have to be a fringey right-winger on hate radio to be disgusted with government.





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3 Responses to The Kettleman City Babies – Part I

  1. Michelle says:

    I find your persepctive very interesting. I just found an article about this problem on and would like to do more research. Do you have any suggestions? Besides the government scratching the surface, have you found any other documents that have really tested the surrounding envirnoment of this city?

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