Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ooze and Sharp Edges

A sprawling landfill site in Matamoros, Mexico contains countless bags of medical waste:

Lime green trash bags are a common sight and deadly hazard. The discarded sacks are typically filled with hospital medical waste, and they’re everywhere. They hold used saline bags, glass vials, plastic syringes, bloody gauze, boxes and bloodied bandages. The waste arrives mixed in with the rest of the garbage, burned, buried and forgotten.
Predictably, the Matamoros site is home to a population of scavengers, many of whom are young children and teens:
His hands are covered in scars, evidence of five years spent digging through this refuse that is layered with unknown medical waste, ooze and sharp edges, including discarded syringes. He is a cut away from an infection, one sharp needle away from death.

The teenager shook his head when asked if he believes his job is dangerous. He doesn’t really worry about the bloody bandages and other hazardous waste scattered about.
Like other Mexican border towns, Matamoros is a popular destination for Americans seeking illicit thrills. Thousands of college students visit each spring, lured by the promise of cheap alcohol and sex. In the past, it's also been a primary crossing point for sex-slavery rings in which young Mexican girls are offered passage to the United States, and then forced to work off the debt (a complex system of fines and interest charges usually ensures that the debt can't actually be discharged).

Under these circumstances, diseases like AIDS and hepatitis are a serious concern. The presence of infectious medical wastes in the landfill makes matters considerably worse; prostitution is as predictable a response to poverty as scavenging for glass and metal, and there's undoubtedly a certain amount of overlap between the two professions.

While maquiladoras have exponentially increased the waste disposal problems in Matamoros, and attracted staggering numbers of desperately poor immigrants from all over Mexico and Central America, NAFTA hasn't brought about a corresponding growth in infrastructure improvements, housing, or public health. On the bright side, the NIMH is currently conducting a study into the feasibility of "changing sexual risk behaviors in Mexican female sex workers":
Border cities often have a thriving sex trade industry, and some are considered “sexual tourist” destinations. FSWs in these border cities, however, often do not know how to practice safe sex.
Meanwhile, a site called World Sex Guide presents consumers' experiences of prostitution in Matamoros:
I took a cab to where the cab driver said some ladies could be found. There were maybe five women on the street. All of them were ugly - either old, fat, or both. Being in a bad condition of drunk and horney, I played devil's advocate and choose one. $30 and a bad screw later, I was on my way home. Including the $20 cab fare, I spent $50 for a bad experience.
The poor man. It's just not fair, is it?

Incidentally, the mosquito-thronged waste tires in the Matamoros landfill have contributed to the emergence of dengue fever and dengue hemorrhagic fever on both sides of the border. Also, scavengers routinely set fire to the landfill in order to uncover metal and glass; this spews evil-smelling smoke and toxic particles all over Brownsville and the surrounding farmland (some fires burn for months at a time). Far more disturbing, though, is the amazingly high incidence of such neural tube defects as anencephaly in Matamoros/Brownsville.

When you hear people shrieking about the need for a wall along the border, bear in mind that it won't keep corporatism's bountiful harvest of disease and pollution out of the United States.
“In the public health department, there are no borders,” said Josue Ramírez, public health director for the Brownsville Health Department.
Strict, humane labor and environmental regulations would be a far more practical solution to both problems, and to illegal immigration. Unfortunately, that'd cost American corporations and defense contractors a great deal of money. They'd much prefer to conduct business as usual, and let taxpayers unwittingly cover the horrific hidden costs of their "affordable" consumer goods.

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