Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California, has some of the highest levels of air pollution measured in all of the Americas, Ian James reported for the Desert Sun. As part of a multi-story investigative series, “Poisoned Cities: Deadly Border,” James reported that air pollution in Mexicali contributes to abnormally high levels of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), respiratory illness, lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes among the city’s 750,000 residents. A January 2019 report by Baja California health authorities estimated that pollution caused 304 premature deaths in 2015.
Although traffic exhaust and fumes from burning trash contribute to the problem, factories located in the city are responsible for smoke and soot laced with lead, chlorine, and other toxic particles that account for the worst of the city’s air pollution. As James reported, Mexicali is home to over 180 manufacturing centers, the majority of which produce goods— including water heaters, roofing materials, glass bottles, big-rig trucks, plastic items and airplane parts—for export to US markets. Companies base their manufacturing in Mexicali to take advantage of cheaper labor and weaker environmental enforcement.
Mexican health records indicate that at least 78 people died of asthma and 903 people died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the Mexicali region between 2010 and 2016. “It’s not possible to attribute individual deaths solely to pollution,” James wrote, “But the pattern of illnesses and deaths, both in Mexicali and in California communities near the border, points to air pollution being a significant contributor.”
Mexicali’s citizens are aware of how industrial air pollution impacts their health, but high levels of poverty and governmental corruption prevent them from making significant changes to improve their living conditions. Federal environmental agencies are supposed to regulate factory emissions, but inadequate budgets prevent officials from adequately regulating the factories. Despite intensive industrialization, Mexicali has only four working air monitors. A graphic accompanying James’ report shows another five inactive monitoring sites. These have been shut due to a lack of maintenance, he reported. As a result, many companies are left to monitor and report their own emissions. When companies are held accountable for pollution, they face small fines, usually less than $2,700.
This system of self-regulation fails to protect the health of Mexicali’s residents. In 2014, Fidel Alfaro Meléndrez, a law professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California, and a group of law students sued Mexican environmental authorities for failure to enforce anti-pollution laws. The suit accused government regulators of “violating human rights recognized in Mexico’s constitution as well as international law,” James reported. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family…”
Ian James, “This City’s Air Is Killing People. Who Will Stop It?,” Desert Sun (Palm Springs), January 15, 2019, https://www.desertsun.com/in-depth/news/environment/border-pollution/poisoned-cities/2018/12/05/air-pollution-taking-deadly-toll-u-s-mexico-border/1381585002/.\
Ian James, “This Mexican City was Transformed by Factories. Its People Pay a Heavy Price,” Desert Sun (Palm Springs), December 10, 2018, https://www.desertsun.com/in-depth/news/environment/border-pollution/poisoned-cities/2018/12/05/mexicali-industrial-city-factories-maquiladoras-border-pollution/1295896002/.
Ian James, “This River is Too Toxic to Touch, and People Live Right Next to It,” Desert Sun (Palm Springs), December 10, 2018, https://www.desertsun.com/in-depth/news/environment/border-pollution/poisoned-cities/2018/12/05/toxic-new-river-long-neglect-mexico-border-calexico-mexicali/1381599002/.
Ian James, “A Toxic Dumping Ground Festers on the Border,” Desert Sun (Palm Springs), December 10, 2018, https://www.desertsun.com/in-depth/news/environment/border-pollution/poisoned-cities/2018/12/05/toxic-dumping-ground-mexicali-mexico-border-pollution/1295722002/.
Student Researcher: Briana Earls (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (Sonoma State University)