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Organizing against factory pollution

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 33: Pollution from factories > Organizing against factory pollution


In this chapter:

Gathering information about pollution from factories can be as simple as asking some questions and taking a walk around the area, or it may be more complex, involving formal interviews and scientific studies. In either case, if you organize well you may be able to find the sources of pollution and change things for the better.

ActivityCommunity pollution survey

This activity has 2 parts. Your group may need to meet a few times to plan and to evaluate each part. It may take several weeks to complete.

  1. Talk to people in the community

    Ask your neighbors and older residents of the community to think back to a time before the factory opened. What has changed since then?

    Ask your neighbors what signs of factory pollution they have seen or smelled. Ask them about illnesses they or their family members may be suffering, especially miscarriages and birth defects, as many toxics cause reproductive problems. Write down the information about illnesses, dates, and the location of their homes in relation to the factory. You can also use this information to make a map.

    For ideas about making and using surveys, see Chapter 3.

    Ask workers and former workers what kind of waste the factory produces and where it goes. Try to find out what chemicals are used in the factory, how they are used, and how those chemicals get into the air, water, food, and homes outside the factory. Find out where the wastewater from the factory goes. Companies often dump many of the chemicals they use into local sewers, rivers, lakes, and so forth. This information will help you plan the next part of the activity.
  2. Take a walk
    As a group, or in several small groups, you can walk around the community using your eyes, nose, and ears to detect strange colors, smells, and sounds that may be signs of pollution. Follow up on the information people in the factory and community told you. Write down what you learn and take photographs of what you see. This will help you share the information later and will help the group decide what action to take.

    Ask questions about what you do not see. For example, if there are no trucks leaving the factory with chemical waste, it is either going into the air, being dumped into the ground, or piped into a sewer or stream. Are smells, illnesses, or other signs of pollution greater downwind or downstream from the factory?

    Decide as a group where to walk and what to look for. Here are some suggestions of things to observe:
    • Look for signs of air pollution
      Is there smoke, dust, or smog in the air around the factory? Do trucks often park on streets with their motors running?
    Walk downwind from the factory and look for dust in the air or signs of chemicals on the ground, building, or plants.
    Use your sense of smell to detect strange odors. Sniff around for a chemical smell or a burning smell. You may have to walk the area more than once and at different times, because burning may happen only at certain times of the day or week. Ask the neighbors.
    • Look for signs of water pollution
      Visit nearby creeks, canals, and ponds, and notice the color and the smell of the water. Look for signs of oily, foamy, or sticky residues in the water or on the plants, rocks, or sand next to the water. Observe the plants, fish, animals, and insects living in and around the water. Do they seem healthy?
    • Look for signs of other waste
      Can you see liquid waste flowing out of the factory, or a trench where barrels of chemicals are emptied onto the ground? Are there piles of empty containers or other trash? Are there people recycling used products?
  3. Discuss what you learn
    a woman making 3 lists on a chalkboard: "Signs of Pollution," "Health Effects," and "Solutions."

    The most important step is sharing all the information with the group or entire community. You may want to make a map of the area around the factory and mark where you observed signs of pollution.

    On a wall or a chalkboard, make a list of all the kinds of pollution coming from the factory, possible health effects of each type of pollution, and possible solutions. Using these lists, ask questions that will help the group decide what action to take. For example, which kind of pollution is causing the most problems? Which kind of pollution may be the easiest to stop or to clean up? See more about how to make a community map.

Taking action to clean it up

The Metales y Derivados battery recycling plant in the Chilpancingo neighborhood of Tijuana, Mexico, did not take care with its toxic waste. The factory stored it in badly-made containers that leaked chemicals into the soil and water. The wind blew waste into the community. People complained about skin rashes, stomach problems, and asthma.

Pressure from the community and environmentalists finally pushed the Mexican government to close the plant. But instead of cleaning up the extremely dangerous chemicals, the factory owner fled across the border to San Diego, USA. He knew the Mexican government could not touch him there. The plant was abandoned with 23,000 tons of waste, including 7,000 tons of a very toxic lead mixture.

The people of Chilpancingo, with help from the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) activists from the USA and Mexico, campaigned to clean up this toxic waste site left by Metales y Derivados. After more than a decade, the Mexican government finally signed a cleanup agreement and formed a bi-national community and government working group. The cleanup was completed in 2008 and included independent community monitoring. Key to their success was:

  • getting organized and connecting with environmental, labor, and human rights groups. They held rallies, sent letters to government officials, and kept media attention focused on their problem.
  • testing, monitoring, and publicizing the pollution. Local laboratories tested the water and soil, and university students in the border region gave technical support.
  • organizing educational campaigns about pollution and health. They developed a grassroots training program for women on how to identify and eliminate toxics in the household, how industrial contamination affects the community, and how to create action plans for change.
  • using local, national, and international laws and regulations. When the Mexican government said it was not responsible and would not pay for the clean-up, the people appealed. After 3 years, the bi-national environmental agency determined that the Chilpancingo site was a "grave risk to human health." They also got the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing to tour the area, and the UN High Commission for Human Rights to speak on their behalf.

    All these actions increased pressure on the Mexican government to finally clean up Chilpancingo.