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Community calls out local government inaction after discovering cancer-causing chemicals in drinking water: 'Our health has been destroyed'

"The effects have been downplayed, denied, and ignored."

"The effects have been downplayed, denied, and ignored."

Photo Credit: iStock

Contaminated groundwater has devastated a community in Tucson, Arizona, endangering the well-being of generations of families. 

What happened?

According to Earthjustice, federal officials during the 1980s discovered that a military base in southern Tucson had polluted nearby drinking water for decades with trichloroethylene, dioxins, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Linda Robles and her family moved south to a newly constructed house in Midvale to avoid those toxic chemicals, but the relocation of a few miles wasn't enough to escape.

"I tried to run away from the TCE," Robles told Earthjustice. "It followed us. Wherever water goes, those chemicals follow."

Shortly after moving, Robles' daughter developed a rare form of kidney cancer and died within three years of her diagnosis. Her other daughter and son developed rashes and were diagnosed with lupus. Robles' granddaughter from her surviving daughter was born with a cleft lip and was also diagnosed with kidney disease.

"When I asked my daughter's doctor if TCE could be the reason for her disease, he said, 'It very much could be. Let's test all your kids,'" Robles said.

The city implemented a wastewater treatment system after the Environmental Protection Agency designated the city as a Superfund site. Officials, however, simply added clean water from another area instead of remediating the plume source, leaving residents with water still containing TCE — just at an EPA-compliant standard.

Why is the contamination concerning?

TCE is a carcinogenic solvent frequently used as a refrigerant or metal degreaser at factories, airports, and military bases. It can be waterborne or airborne and has been linked to adverse health effects such as leukemia, breast cancer, kidney cancer, and congenital heart defects in fetuses. 

Data from the Environmental Working Group shows that 18.4 million Americans are exposed to the harmful substance through their drinking water.

Meanwhile, dioxins can impair immune, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems, and PFAS can cause cancers and reproductive complications.

Robles also noted the disproportionate presence of chemicals contaminating the water in Midvale, a community that is predominantly Latino and Spanish-speaking. 

"We were forced to drink, cook, and bathe in that water [before the city notified us]," Robles said. "Our properties, our health has been destroyed. The effects have been downplayed, denied, and ignored because of environmental racism."

What's being done about the contamination?

Robles was dissatisfied with the city's response and took matters into her own hands by forming the Environmental Justice Task Force with other locals. After raising awareness of the hazards in their water, several neighbors shared the host of health issues they or people they knew experienced. 

Earthjustice sued the EPA over its utilization of TCE, and the Biden administration responded by proposing a ban on the chemical. 

"When the military decided to put their hazardous waste sites in communities of color, they chose who lives or dies, whose children get sick," Robles said. "To make that decision, to be that heartless — that's its own health condition."

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