Fluoride Action Network

In Acrid Brazilian Factory Zone, A Fear of Disaster

Source: The New York Times | Special to the New York Times
Posted on May 18th, 1985
Location: Brazil

CUBATAO, Brazil – The factories on this swampland have turned the nearby town into a place of superlatives: in Cubatao, pollutants in the rain have reached some of the highest levels known in the world; the air is considered unfit for humans on a record number of days, and more cases of cancer, stillbirths and deformed babies are reportedly recorded here than anywhere else in Brazil.

Nearly 100,000 people live in this town on Brazil’s south coast, under acrid layers of red, ocher and gray that trap the heat and hover in the sky. On days when the act of breathing becomes a challenge, the children and the aged are given emergency oxygen supplies.

This huge petrochemical center, environmental experts fear, is an industrial disaster waiting to happen. They say enough accidents have occurred because of low safety standards and poor maintenance for their fear to be well founded.

Fire Destroys a Slum

Last year, when a gasoline duct caught fire, the slum alongside was destroyed and at least 100 people died, with some residents here saying the figure was closer to 300. In January, 15 tons of ammonia escaped into the air, and 5,000 people had to be evacuated.

Cubatao is a chemical enclave set on coastal lowlands behind Brazil’s main port, Santos, which serves Sao Paulo. It offers two very different views of a nation that is often pointed to as a paragon of rapid industrial growth in the developing world.

From one perspective, Cubatao is an eloquent monument to Brazil’s drive to become an industrial power. Most of the plants for making steel, fertilizer, plastics and cement were built in the 1970’s, when the Government pushed for growth at any cost and Brazil was offering profit rates that were among the world’s highest, along with low salaries, pro-business labor laws and stable right-wing military rule. Cubatao’s 111 plants, which are owned by 23 foreign and Brazilian companies, today account for 16 percent of the national industry.

By contrast, Cubatao has also become an example of the pains of such an ambitious industrialization project in a setting where workers are poorly trained, legislation to limit pollution is scant and companies have saved millions on investments by avoiding installation of costly pollution controls.

Bhopal Accident Jarred Nerves

As images of the dead and injured after the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, were shown on television last December, the people of Cubatao watched nervously, residents recalled. There was panic as word spread that the same lethal chemical that had leaked in India was being used at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant just two miles from here.

Since then, the state authorities have banned importation of the chemical, methyl isocyanate, restricting Union Carbide to the use of its current stocks only. Next, so that the state could draw up its own safety rules, the state environmental agency demanded that all industries submit their plans for accident control.

”The pollution is bad, but our biggest problem is accidental emissions and accidents,” said Fernando Guimaraes, the agency’s engineer responsible for monitoring Cubatao.

Squatters have built rows of shacks above a vast underground grid of ducts and pipes that carry flammable, corrosive and explosive materials. Trucks lumber alongside loaded with poison, which has spilled in past accidents.

Enforcement Plan Is Urged

”High-pressure tanks are holding 50 tons of chlorine or ammonia,” Mr. Guimaraes said. ”A failure or a blowout means a cold cloud close to the ground and you just stop breathing. We need a strict enforcement plan. Either we move people or we move factories.”

To some men coming off the day shift and stopping in a makeshift saloon, issues such as health and safety seemed beyond worry. The steel mill where they worked often has benzene leaks, they said, and the union has denounced 200 cases of benzene intoxication. They had heard the air was full of particles of iron, manganese and coal. ”But we need the work,” one man said. ”We have nowhere else to go.” For the saloon owner, abstractions like contamination also seemed less meaningful than the more tangible concerns of selling her goods across the rickety counter. After the ammonia leak in the plant nearby, she refused to be evacuated. ”This is all I have,” she said. ”I can’t leave it behind.”

High Chemical Levels

A study by the state environmental agency found that every day about 1,000 tons of toxic gases and particles are emitted in an area of 30 square miles. Some dissipates or otherwise becomes harmless, but a large part affects the environment. An agency study recently showed that the rainwater contained, in addition to sulfur dioxide, 16 pollutants of which 6 had ”reached the highest levels known so far in the world.” In 1984, according to the study, maximum levels found in a liter of rainwater were 15 milligrams of ammonia, 87.5 milligrams of iron, 87.5 milligrams of phosphates, 525 milligrams of calcium, 89.2 milligrams of fluorites and 305 milligrams of sulfates.

”All of these were abnormally high,” Mr. Guimaraes said, adding that, strictly speaking, Cubatao’s ”acid rain” was becoming more like an ”alkaline rain” because of the high levels of phosphates and sulfates.

The agency found that 100 times in 1984 pollution in Cubatao’s air exceeded 240 micrograms of chemical dust per cubic meter, a level widely accepted as one that should not be passed to avoid long-term health damage. It reported that the dust, mostly sulfates and phosphates, often exceeded the ”alert” level of 475 micrograms, passed 625 micrograms at least 12 times and once reached an ”emergency level” of 875 micrograms.

Pollution Program Is Planned

Long hampered by a lack of political influence, but now with a new mandate, the agency often fines the plants or orders them briefly shut. It has drawn up a $100 million program for pollution control and is demanding that it be fully installed in 1987.

Companies here do not issue reports on occupational accidents and diseases, and doctors who have worked in several industries said that in-house medical reports had disappeared.

Florivaldo Caje, who heads the city’s environmental commision, said other reports cited a high incidence of asthma, tuberculosis, pneumonia, cancer and birth defects.

On a recent afternoon when the air was thick and still and visibility had dropped to 200 feet, Dr. Claudemir Rodrigues attended patients in the first-aid clinic of Vila Parisi, one of the shantytowns. Patients, he said, had skin and lung problems and there was an increase in leukopenia, a condition in which the level of white blood cells is sharply below normal. The doctor insisted that the cases he saw were the result of air pollution.

‘It’s Like Being in Hell’

”Sometimes, when we get thermal inversion, it’s like being in hell,” he said. ”On days when the plants let off ammonia, we have to give a lot of oxygen. The first to come are old people and children. We may get 120 people per day.”

Around Cubatao, pollution has choked off life in rivers and fields and is killing trees behind the town on the mountain range that traps emissions. Without vegetation to hold the soil, landslides have followed and large strips of green have vanished from the 2,000-foot-high slopes as though scraped off by giant claws.

In February, landslides damaged a railroad, a highway and several plants, prompting some companies to put up protective dikes. The Institute of Technological Research in Sao Paulo has warned that more such landslides are to be expected, and one geologist described the damaged vegetation as ”a geological time bomb.”

View of Industrialists

Artur Carvalho, a director of the association of industrialists here, said the air should improve as the new control program now under way becomes fully effective.

He said safety precautions in most factories were adequate, and he appeared to blame the Government for the befouling of air, water and soil. ”Until recently,” he said, ”there were no specifications, no well-defined limits for emissions.”

Mr. Guimaraes disagreed. ”Most of the industries are violating the law most of the time,” he said. ”They always tried to get away with it.”

Some concerned citizens here say they hope pollution and safety regulations may be tightened later this year when, under Brazil’s new Government, a new mayor will be elected, rather than appointed as in the past.

Until the current Mayor, Nei Eduardo Serra, took office, he was the regional director of the association of industrialists.