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Category Archives: health

Water in the home

My person being the principle “research instrument” of my study, living and gathering data in La Carpio, I had surprisingly few problems with health. I had occasional problems with clogged sinuses, sore throats, and small annoyances of the like. The family mentioned sickness, however, as one of the main reasons for missing school. “Sickness” they described as rashes that would break out on their skin, and in later conversations, as asthma (although they said asthma wasn’t really a reason they missed school). It is difficult for me to gage, as an outsider, what a reasonable level of comfort inside the home was. The conditions were so far below what I was used to that I could highlight any number of health risks inside the home; however, it would be hard to single out any one factor as acutely hazardous.

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Cold wake-up call

“I’m a popsicle!” Britani shouts cheerfully at me from the doorway to their portion of the home. Britani will turn three in a few weeks. She’s wrapped up in a towel and her hair is still dripping, slicked back as one of her sisters tugs a comb through it aggressively. Her teeth are chattering while she laughs in a high-pitched giggle.

“Why are you a popsicle?” I ask.

“Because I just took a bath!” she breaks into giggles. “I’m freezing!” Britani hates taking baths unless the water is warmed up for her. Today she has to bathe and get dressed up, though, because she is going to the clinic with her mom. She is full of bubbly giggles and laughter, talking with exaggerated expressions that strike me as unbearably cute, but have no effect on the rest of her family. Before I leave for work, she asks me to take a photo of her all dressed up and ready to go out. She adorns her outfit with a white washcloth tucked into her jeans to add a stylish flourish.

The reason she’s a popsicle, of course, is because the water is frigid, poured in bowlfuls from a large, 55-gallon blue plastic drum. The drum resides next to the toilet and is filled every morning by a hose connected to one of the spigots in the front of the home. This huge drum (estañon?) is filled each morning, sometimes more than once a day, and used for bathing and flushing the toilet. No one explained these processes to me, which were different in the home than in other places I’d lived. Flushing the toilet is done by scooping a bowlful of water, holding it high above the toilet, and expertly slinging it into the bowl so the gravity creates pressure in the tube and carries the toilet water underground and into the large cement pipe a few meters away, which dumps it straight into the river a couple dozen meters from the house. The cement pipes were just recently installed – about a year ago, and everyone’s waste water is carried to the river through the pipes. Water used for cooking, cleaning, and bathing passes through the home in an uncovered trench and out into the street, where it joins greywater from other homes in another uncovered dirt trench on its way to the river.

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Cuts and scars

It is sometimes discouraging when I see the places these kids have to play in. Most of the time they play in the street, on rocks and gravel with the stream of gray water trickling by. Someone will fall over a piece of protruding cement, or trip on a spike of rebar jutting out of the ground. The worst thing to gash yourself on, though, are the mangled corners of the sheet metal on the walls, or a protruding nail. There aren’t any real “parks” in La Carpio, nor any “public” places, except the streets, and one cement court walled by a chain link fence over by the garbage dump.

On July 25th, the Dia de la Anexión de Guanecaste, I left work about a half-hour early since it is a national holiday for the rest of the country. I was working on editing some photos of my boss’s daughter’s quinceniera. I should mention, or I will probably describe in more detail later, that the entire time I’m living in La Carpio I spend all of my weekdays doing normal office work and attending events, meetings, parties, weddings, and celebrations that contrast quite starkly to the material poverty I return to each evening. It takes quite a toll on me, but I figure if these two worlds coexist so closely, it should be humanly bearable to span between them each day. It’s bearable, unfortunately. We learn to tolerate it all too easily without too many pangs of conscience. Spending all your time in an affluent context, or all your time in a poorer context, doesn’t often confront you with the gap between the two. We acclimate to our surroundings. What is miserable, discouraging, and heartbreaking is moving between the two extremes. Every. Day. But even to this one can become acclimated.

Tonight, I notice that little Britani has a splotch of white plaster-looking paste on her arm. She cut herself on the “zinc”, she explains (pronounced “seen”, the sheets of corrugated metal used to construct the walls and ceilings of our home). A few days earlier, following a conversation about various gruesome cuts and punctures the kids got from nails and the metal sheets, I considered doing an entire investigation of scars and where they’d come from. Alicia peeled part of her scalp off on a corner of zinc when she jumped onto the couch. Carlos had a nail go through his foot, and their cousin Melvin came in limping from the same fate a few days ago. Keyvin caught his calf on a nail and it tore a pretty nasty chunk off, causing a pretty gruesome infection that still hadn’t completely cleared up. Lorna stepped in a fire and her toes healed in a sort of contorted way. She has the most gruesome stories, they tell me.

One day, Daniela suddenly explained to me the importance of washing off any food or stickiness from your body before going to bed. The reason is because rats will come nibble it and lick it while you’re asleep. She and her daughter, Britani, show me dark scars on their skin where rats have bitten them at night. I thought I had made peace with the mice squeaking and scratching around under my bed in the morning by ignoring them, but this new insight makes me extremely uneasy. My journal is punctuated with short anecdotes about rats getting into snacks I’d stored, or into my soap, which seemed to be a favorite. I learned early on that I couldn’t store soap or food in my room, but I tried anyways sometimes. They chewed through the plastic containers and through the canvas walls of my duffelbag to get at them. The presence of rats in the house wasn’t really upsetting to anyone; they would occasionally run through the room into the kitchen while we were watching TV. No one exclaimed. They explained that once they could realize their dream of building block walls instead of the metal ones they currently have, that would keep the rats out. Until then, food had to be stored in firmly closed cupboards or hung from the ceiling in bags or containers.

This is probably the reason they found me a bed that sits higher off the floor as soon as possible. Had I heard the stories of mice that nibble skin at night or cockroaches that borough in one’s ears and have to be surgically removed, I never would have settled for the pathetic little excuse for a bed that someone with good intentions lent me to use when I first moved in. That low-lying bed is only useful in a house with block walls and tile floors, that rats and creepy-crawlies can’t get in and out of. I had much fewer incidents with the bed the family found me that was higher off the floor.

Environmental Justice

Health and environmental justice are important topics that have grave implications in La Carpio. These terms are a little vague, so let me provide a little background.

Put simply, research in the U.S. has shown that hazardous waste sites are disproportionately located near poor and black communities (Robert Bullard). That is, if you look at the socioethnic demographics of communities living near hazardous waste sites, you are likely to see more poor and black people living in those areas – not white, middle-class, suburban residents. There are lots of reasons for this, but the result is a cruel impact that affects these populations worse than other groups. The most impacting descriptions of this I read in the books “Amazing Grace” and “Ordinary Resurrections,” in which the author casually describes the impact of a hospital incinerary on the children in the South Bronx. Of course, there are other factors, including lead-based paint and faulty construction – all of which create quite horrifying health hazards for children in the area.

La Carpio is currently the location of Costa Rica’s largest sanitary landfill, receiving 1200 tons of the country’s solid waste, per day. The garbage dump is a Canadian owned company (EBI) with the polite euphemistic label of the “Parque de Tecnologia Ambiental” – the Environmental Technology Park (PTA Uruka). The misleading site name is so painfully blatant, it is not surprising that the surrounding La Carpio community through which the 1200 tons of garbage passes every day is anything but “sanitary.” Although I never heard anyone complain of the garbage dump within La Carpio, I know that rich foreign property buyers across the valley have complained frequently about the smell, including a blog called “Save Cariari” that was written in an attempt to save the elite guarded community across the valley from the woes of the landfill eyesore and the accompanying odors that waft across the valley. The author of the website is aware, I am sure, of the La Carpio community of 30,000 “squatters” without legal possession of their land living on the same peninsular protrusion of land as the garbage dump. However, most of the complaints about infractions of the landfill on the “people” refer to the rich people in luxurious homes across the valley and their eighteen-hole golf course of the Cariari Country Club.

I feel a little convicted as I write this particular entry, because it is probably quite insulting to suggest that the commendable efforts of the people in the La Carpio community toward building a better life occurs within this material context of pollution and health risks. I never got the impression from those I lived with that we were living on a trash heap. I even observed an internal stratification within which those who gleaned through garbage and worked the trash route seemed to be at the bottom end. However, I have chosen to exclude the dignity, resourcefulness, and pride of the La Carpio community members from this particular account, in the hopes of being more detailed and explicit about the very real environmental hazards that they face. The La Carpio community is less than 25 years old… more aggressive confrontation of these issues could avert the same plight that we have irreparably constructed into our U.S. society.

Some of the pioneering members of the community, particularly those in the area in which I lived, are aware that the terrain was originally used as a disposal site for hospital waste. Anecdotal accounts tell of bones, bags of blood, hands, syringes, and all sorts of horrifying medical waste that had to be cleared in order to make the place inhabitable. The sanitary landfill, if I understand correctly, was officially inaugurated in 2000. To be fair, its presence is controversial to members of the community, and EBI has assisted the community in various ways such as sponsoring soccer teams and building a classroom location (one of the three elementary school sites). That is, it has made attempts (with sugary PR releases) to compensate the community in various ways in exchange for their presence in the community.

Indeed, a good deal of the local economy seems to revolve around what is true utilitarian recycling, resourced by the garbage trucks’ daily route through the community. Costa Rica boasts a “culture of recycling”, which often shows up by artistically re-purposing pieces of trash. I didn’t see any native examples of this, although outside parties (myself included) tried to experiment with various ways of making artisan crafts out of local garbage, and get people interested in it. In La Carpio, the reality of waste re-purposing is a complex system that is quick, dirty, and purely utilitarian. I cannot say for certain if the trash circuit is formalized, but a brief description of my observation follows…

The garbage trucks thunder across the thin land bridge, and slow down for the first “muerto” (speed bump). The first buildings on the right of the community are always open during the week while the garbage trucks run, one with the cryptic message “Dios Padre / Bless takers” spraypainted across its grey doors. Young males from about 14 and up leap onto the trucks and begin pulling off anything that can be re-purposed – computer parts, wood fragments, electronics, etc… They then drag these mangled masses of trash back to the huge buildings where they break them down into their most elemental form. Signs at the entrance explain the price given for different raw materials – copper, aluminum, bronze, etc…. Copper seems to be the most valuable – most electronics and wiring can be broken apart for their copper innards. Some of the trucks slow down or stop, and some seem to have special loads of salvageable waste, some of which can be repaired and resold within the community. I suspect that some of the electronics I saw used in the homes, such as televisions and computers, had been repaired at one of the many shops on the main road. There are places along the main road that specialize in various forms of re-purposing and repair – carpentry, electronics, clothing, etc…. I was never able to understand how much of this process is formalized, and which parts were ad hoc. For example, I can’t tell why some trucks slow down, and others barrel through. Some require the kids to clamber up top and push materials off the top in a race before the truck gets to the dump, causing a rain of plastics and electronics to fall from the several meters high the entire length of the main road through the community (a 1.2 km stretch, taking about 5 minutes by vehicle without traffic). As I mentioned before, there is a progression of trash quality and even social position on the trash route, which I only know of because the family of one of our computer technicians claims that pulling materials at the entrance to the community is inferior work to going to scout out junk at an undisclosed location near Channel 13, the news station at the other end of the land bridge connecting the community with the rest of the city by road. The Dios Padre/Bless Takers location is dirtier and will make you sick, they explained. Indeed, it looks like brutal, exhausting, dangerous work.

The environmental hazards do not stop with the garbage dump, but this is probably the environmental characteristic most closely linked with the economy of the community. The two rivers enclosing La Carpio feed into what later becomes the most polluted river in central america (Rio Tarcoles), by some accounts. A confidential wikileak document notes that rivers and water treatment in Costa Rica is basically non-existent (less than 3% of wastewater is treated before being dumped in the rivers and ocean). La Carpio is near the end of these rivers’ route through the city, which is part of the reason a water treatment plant is scheduled to be constructed there in 2015. At the entrance to the community while I lived there, two signs were put up protesting the installation of the water treatment plant. One of the rivers is dammed at the far end of La Carpio to generate hydroelectric electricity, which travels into the city via high-voltage towers passing over the community.

And here I will enter into a short imaginative exercise that has no scientific basis, but is interesting to consider. First of all, if we consider the total OUTPUT of work, power, and resources that flow outward from La Carpio, and compare that to the amount of resourcing INPUT from the city, I would estimate there is a considerable amount of imbalance. Most of what comes IN is pollution from the rivers, garbage from the city, discrimination and insults from the media and general public, and police force. The tally of what goes OUT is countless jiggawatts of hydroelectric power, recycled raw materials, busloads of workers in the morning taking jobs no one else is willing to do, and sand from the cement quarry. In summary, you’ve got a lot of garbage and waste heaped into the community from the outside, while simultaneously the country is extracting every natural and human resource it can possibly take. This is a dangerous, exploitative relationship.

Watch/listen to an original presentation I wrote about environmental justice issues in La Carpio