Birth Defects Spark Controversy in Kettleman City

With so many problems facing the world today, it is easy to overlook what may seem like a trivial matter – birth defects in a small town between Fresno and Bakersfield called Kettleman City. In less than one and a half years, three of five babies born with cleft palates and other genetic disorders have passed away. The parents believe that the root cause is the toxins in the air, water, and land. This small farming town is lodged between agricultural fields, two highways (Interstate 5 and Highway 41), and most importantly, a hazardous waste dump.

Environmental activist groups are now calling for an expansion of the landfill in order to lower the concentration of pollutants in the atmosphere. In addition, they are proposing an investigation of the Waste Management landfill to find out if there is a connection between the contents of the landfill and these birth defects. Hazardous materials such as batteries, paint solvents, and pesticides are processed here, making for a contaminated environment. Parents claim that at times there were dreadful odors coming from the plant.

Although the plant may appear to be the main factor in the deaths of these babies, one cannot overlook the other possibilities of pollution in the community. Being surrounded by two highways, the residents are constantly exposed to exhaust from cars. Moreover, studies show that Kettleman City water contains higher arsenic levels than allowed by federal law, yet regulators do not ban the people from drinking or bathing in it. Even with an investigation of the toxins in the air, it is extremely difficult to identify exactly which chemicals may be causing these birth defects.

There are two groups fighting for the rights of Kettleman City. These two groups are Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, an environmental protection organization based in San Francisco, and El Pueblo para El Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water), a local organization with many of the city’s residents struggling to try to put an end to the problems that resonate in their own background. Besides helping these families combat the projected increase of a toxic landfill site that is full of deadly chemicals, Greenaction’s main objective is to help increase awareness of the topic with community members about the health threats in their neighborhood and look to connect with local media outlets to publish reports about the environmental dangers that are present. Another focal point Greenaction tries to help with is creating local groups that offer a voice for the community to speak out against environmental injustice. A perfect example of this is the group mentioned above (El Pueblo para El Aire y Agua Limpio).

The story of Kettleman City is a call to action for all those who believe in environmental justice. The families who have suffered the loss of their children as well as the families who are raising children in Kettleman City have suffered enough. The community has appealed the already approved expansion of the Waste Management facility. This hearing, followed by a candlelight vigil, will take place on Monday, December 7 in Hanford, CA. For more information, please contact Environmental Justice Professor Lauren Richter at


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