Lead in the Place of the Child

The name of the community is El Sitio del Niño, "the Place of the Child," but a better name might be "the Place of the Poisoned Child." Sitio del Niño is the location of the Record Battery factory, a place where used lead acid batteries are recycled to recover the lead inside them. Repeated tests and reports in recent years have shown that the lead does not stay inside the factory -- it is found in the air, soil and water around the factory, and most tragically, in the bloodstreams of the children of the surrounding area.

El Faro captured the frustrated anguish of a mother recounting her family's story to yet another reporter:
I ask myself: And for what? What reason do I have to tell the same thing yet another time. It makes me tired to tell that my children, when they go out picking cherries on their bicycles, always return with dead birds. I am tired of telling that my children have it in their blood.... that my daughter will have repercussions on her ability to have children. And for what? I ask myself. If all this is already known throughout all the country and outside the country. Telemundo has been here and it has been in the news in the United States. We've made denunciations with the prosecutor. And what have the authorities done? Are they going to close the factory? Are they going to help us? And for what do I want to tell all this to you yet again if I have already told it many times and nothing has ever happened?
One group who heard the stories from Sitio was the US Center for Disease Control. The CDC assisted El Salvador's government with lead monitoring in late 2005. But in April 2007, a La Prensa feature story described how little was being done to guard against the risk of lead that the CDC had found from the Record Battery factory:
[The CDC] found the presence of the metal in the houses of the region and left in 2005 a series of recommendations to reduce the levels of contamination. During the two years which followed, however, the actions executed [by Record] went more towards hiding the damage than correcting it. The Salvadoran government has done very little to keep watch on the emissions of lead and much less to to guarantee the health of the inhabitants.
Since then, the office of El Salvador's Human Rights Advocate ("PDDH" for its Spanish initials) has gotten involved. In a report issued June 7, 2007 , the PDDH recounted a long history of bureaucratic failure to act. The environment ministry was cited as being "negligent and potentially complicit" with the business interests. The PDDH sharply criticized the negligence of the Minister of Public Health in failing to address the situation and acting to hide information from people living around the factory and the factory employees. The PDDH urged the Salvadoran government actors to recognize the urgent need to prevent the source of the contamination including closing the factory.

Three months later, little has changed. The PDDH issued another report, dated August 30, 2007 which emphasized a laundry list of illnesses and symptoms found in the inhabitants of Sitio del Nino, and harshly critiqued the government's inaction as a violation of fundamental human rights of the persons living in the shadow of the factory. Now the PDDH plans to take the case to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations reports Diario Colatino.

This summer, 88 children were tested, the health ministry claims there were 55 children with elevated levels of lead in their blood, Record, however, claims the number is only 15 after it sent the samples outside of El Salvador for testing. Record asserts that any lead contamination in the area comes from sources other than the operations of its factory.

The government has still taken no action. La Prensa reported that the government lacks rules with teeth because there had been a failure to issue limits for stationary source air pollution involving permitted levels of lead which could have been applied to the Record facility. The Minister of Health stated that Record has been allowed to operate without a permit since 2004. The El Salvador Attorney General's office said on September 17 that it lacked sufficient proof of lead pollution to take action against the factory.

About Record

Record Battery is owned by the prominent Lacayo family. Miguel Lacayo, was the Salvadoran Minister of the Economy under President Francisco Flores. Lacayo was criticized in 2001 for advocating a change in customs duties which would lower tariffs on the battery materials shipped by his company. Record Battery received financing for expansion in the late 1990's from the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank.

A description of the processes employed in the Record factory is contained in this trip report from the International Lead Management Center, a lead industry funded organization.

Record portrays itself as a "green" company as this presentation from 2005 shows. Record is also part of something called the Green Lead Initiative, a lead industry initiative to promote environmentally safe use and processing of lead. (It is worth acknowledging that the handling and disposal of old lead batteries is a significant environmental issue which is a challenge for developing countries as described in this presentation on recycling used lead acid batteries in Latin America and Caribbean ).

The Salvadoran press has been covering this story extensively, although there is little in the English language press outside of the country. Two major stories appeared in La Prensa in April and El Faro this week.

This is an advertising sign for Record Batteries -- it translates "Hard to Kill."
As blogger Ixquic states, it is children who ought to be "hard to kill."


blah said…
This whole story is so old...Im amazed it is until now people are complaining about it. Everyone at Sitio del Nino knew about the dumping of lead..since it's been going on for years.

I really doubt there is going to be a huge change.
Anonymous said…
I'm a little confused and I think the PDDH is too. The PDDH should realize that if the Ministry of Environment, and Public Health, are not informing the public, they are not just "potentially complicit," but in fact are complicit.

If the article is citing sources correctly, then I'm afraid the PDDH is taking a less-than-active stance, much like the Ministries involved, in protecting the rights of people of El Salvador.
Anonymous said…
The factory should not be closed, but the appropriate govt. agencies should step in to enforce a better handling of the lead products to minimize the poisoning of lead in the environment.
El-Visitador said…
This is a very sad story indeed.

Consider: there are 300,000 car lead batteries discarded in El Salvador each year. Record pays cash for old batteries, so it is able to recycle 70% of these. The rest end up thrown in creeks, or processed in backyard battery shops such as this one that lead poisoned a whole family in Santa Ana.

Should Record be closed so we throw 200,000 more batteries to our creeks and rivers? If not Record, who will pick up the 200,000 discarded batts?

What Record needs is close supervision. Better yet, judicial enforcement for any damages caused to neighbors and employees. This isn't anything an old-fashioned 19th-century tort-based judicial system couldn't have taken care of.

- * -

This case shows that the naive lefty standard approach of opening up a new bureaucracy for each perceived problem is perfectly useless.

We've had a Ministry of Health for some 50 years now, but no-one focuses on holding it accountable because there are a dozen agencies that in fact, share responsibilities.

Since there are many bureacucracies "responsible" for this social catastrophe.... no one bureaucracy is actually responsible.

Instead of strengthening the existing institutions of State, the naive agenda has been to open up new centers of incompetence. Witness the result.
Tim said…

I should know this, but I don't. Does El Salvador have a tort system that would allow the poisoned residents of El Sitio to sue Record for damages? After all, if that guy who owned the McDonald's franchise could sue McDonald's and get $24 million, why can't the mother of an affected child? (Forget the fact that the McDonald's suit was baseless).

El-Visitador said…

I must defer to Ixquic and other legal eagles who might know the exact answer. I will list some facts:

1. We don't use a germanic common-law system, where law evolves from common use and common sense. Instead, we use the Roman-French system, where all laws are derived from the Legislature.

2. Our Courts are what I would call "legalistic" in that they go by whatever contracts were signed by the parties. When there is no written contract, one's rights are already weakened (but often still exist, because the Law says so. Still, good luck).

3. Hardly anyone sues for damages in E.S., unless such damages were already spelled out in a contract, so a judge merely has to implement whatever the contract already recites. This is because:

4. Civil courts are a veritable disaster. Plain inheritance lawsuits that take 25 years and are never solved because the parties die off or just elect to forget about the whole thing. Ordinary foreclosures that might take all of 2 weeks in the civilized world take 5 years. Before such insensitivity to time (man's most valuable property), most Salvadoreans can't be bothered about suing anyone..

3. I hope I am wrong here, but I don't think our lawyers, and therefore our Judges or for that matter anyone else, are ever thaught that the sanctity of property is the paramount raison d'être of the whole legal realm. Your property over your life and your assets, of course. If there were consciousness of such a fact, then of course, making whole the victims of lead poisoning should be no major obstacle. And making whole would mean actual medical costs, remedial education costs, costs for pain and suffering, and loss of a lifetime of wages.
Anonymous said…
Wow, so thank god for record, their recycling policy is saving us all; if you close them we will all die.
Sounds like the words of Elias Saca, "think about the workers who would loose their hobs". "Keep poisoning those families because there is no better solution.
Tatally corporate state.
bunch of crap.
ixquic* said…

El Salvador has a system to repair of damages. (at least, in the paper) Our problem is not of laws, is of approach, priorities and bureaucracy and weakness of justice.

1.The environment law establishes the environmental judge, its competition: to know and to judge acts that have civil responsibility derived from acts that attempt against environment (...). If these judges were working, the mother could interpose the denunciation here.

The law is 9 years old and there is no judge. For that reason, the only way is to use the civil judgment of damages (at the ordinary way), that has centuries of use, is not oral and very, very, very, slow. There it has to prove that there is lead in the body, and that is a nexus between the activity of factory and the contamination (the factory says that the place has lead, the factory it´s an other cuestion). In addition, you have to prove the damage (to quantify, to measure it) and the .... ups I dony know how to say it!. (lucro cesante y daño emergente). I swear to you, that the seen system of justice is dissapointing this way, seems a system catched in the time. Sure impossible it is not and it must be one more bet.
2. In case “Mc.” There was contract, were BIG interests of both parts, but also took some years in solving and, the offended one was not in death danger.

The problem is, ¿Can our judicial sistem be quick and efficient? can be in 25 years???
El-Visitador said…
As much as I respect Ixquic's input, you will notice that her focus is on an abstract concept of justice that must be delivered through some sort of "environmental judge."

Good luck with that.

The focus in E.S. is not on the sanctity of property. If the focus were on the fact that some people's property has been devalued by the negligent actions of others, then we would be on our way to try and redress that wrong by getting the injuring party to make whole the injured party.

- * -

The salvadorean State is largely a failed state because the judicial system does not work. Like Ixquic says, it is trapped in time. I'll add that it is trapped in the wrong mindset.
ixquic* said…
The environmental judge is not an honor point, personally.

What happens is that the law establishes it

it is necessary to countermand that or to execute it. It is necessary to decide.

Instead of spending money in useless advisers, the civil process would be due to reform judicial: to return it fast por example.

My point it is:

that it exists justice (civil, criminal or wathever)

and that it.

I agree with you (EV), about some things that you said about judicial sistem (some...).