Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay
Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay

Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay

by Daniel Renfrew

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Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay by Daniel Renfrew

Life without Lead examines the social, political, and environmental dimensions of a devastating lead poisoning epidemic. Drawing from a political ecology of health perspective, the book situates the Uruguayan lead contamination crisis in relation to neoliberal reform, globalization, and the resurgence of the political Left in Latin America. The author traces the rise of an environmental social justice movement, and the local and transnational circulation of environmental ideologies and contested science. Through fine-grained ethnographic analysis, this book shows how combating contamination intersected with class politics, explores the relationship of lead poisoning to poverty, and debates the best way to identify and manage an unprecedented local environmental health problem.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520968240
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Series: Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics , #4
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Daniel Renfrew is Associate Professor of Anthropology at West Virginia University.

Read an Excerpt


To Live, Not Only Survive

Today our children are poisoned from factory lead — Tomorrow from police lead. Resist.

ANARCHIST GRAFFITI, Nuevo París, western Montevideo

"DO YOU WANT TO MEET THE MAN who was personally responsible for most of the city's lead contamination?" Mr. Radesca asked, tapping me on the shoulder. I awkwardly shifted in my chair as he whispered in my ear: "He's sitting right behind you." Absurdly imagining some kind of cartoonish villain, I slowly turned around and met face-to-face with an old, rugged-looking man who flashed me a friendly grin through a few missing teeth. Enebé Linardi, the "contaminator," was a longtime employee of the Radesca S.A. storage-battery company. In addition to working at the furnaces and inside the plant, he was the one the owners put in charge of transporting and dumping lead oxide, sulfuric acid, and other toxic waste at various sites across Montevideo. Decades later, this toxic waste would turn into an environmental landmine poisoning thousands of the city's children.

In 2004 I helped organize, along with the Live without Lead Commission (Comisión Vivir sin Plomo) and the Pereira Rossell Hospital's Lead Clinic, the first of two social forums on lead poisoning held at the Montevideo Municipal Palace. The goal of these forums was to provide a space for networking and dialogue between citizen, activist, and institutional actors usually left out of official engagements with and interventions into the lead problem. They also served as a public platform from which to further promote awareness of lead-poisoning risks. The forums brought together members of the CVSP, parents of lead-poisoned children, occupationally exposed workers, journalists, teachers, psychologists, social workers, pediatricians, and members of Parliament, among others. During the scheduled morning break of the September forum, a middle-aged, well-dressed man in a suit and tie walked up to me and offered his hand, introducing himself as José Radesca. Mr. Radesca, nephew of the owners and son of the foreman at the Radesca S.A. battery factory in the western Montevideo neighborhood of Peñarol, later recounted to me a childhood immersed in a toxic nightmare of lead and heavy-metals contamination, where chickens "fell dead" to the ground to be devoured by pigs and where the once fecund surrounding landscape turned into a postapocalyptic scene of devastation.

The Radesca S.A. factory's decades of storage-battery production and disposal resulted in some of the gravest known cases of lead contamination in Montevideo. Industrial waste polluted the factory grounds, the surrounding community of Peñarol, and in dumping areas later settled by communities like 25 de Agosto, an extensive shantytown bordering the Miguelete River in the Aires Puros neighborhood. A few weeks after meeting at the Social Forum, I interviewed Enebé Linardi at his modest but well-kept home in the Montevideo working-class area between Cerrito de la Victoria and Ituzaingó. The graying Mr. Linardi wore thick-rimmed glasses, had wrinkled and calloused skin, and looked every bit of his seventy-six years. Linardi smelted lead for two decades at the Radesca plant. He recounted his health problems: hearing loss, troubles with his bones, kidney disease. Though he survived to old age, Linardi admitted, "I've buried a lot of friends much younger than me ... from cancer, the liver ... the men just kept dying."

The Radesca factory started smelting lead in the early 1950s as a response to nationalist Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) policies, when bureaucratic hurdles and high taxes made importing industrial goods economically prohibitive. ISI was meant to reduce foreign dependency and enhance national self-sufficiency, a productive strategy promoted by the Economic Commission of Latin America that characterized many of the Latin American economies of the time. The Radesca family developed a pioneering smelting and lead-recovery system with the help of the Asturian González brothers, owners of a lead smelter in eastern Montevideo's Malvín Norte neighborhood. During the Radesca factory's heyday from 1960 to 1975, it produced seventy thousand batteries per year and controlled 60 percent of the domestic market, smelting up to three metric tons of lead per shift and nine tons daily (Amorín 2001, 111–13).

Work conditions at the factory were abysmal. Linardi described how in the early days the workers would only wear alpargata sandals and overalls, stepping in and tracking lead oxide everywhere. His nostrils and mouth would brown from the smothering lead dust. To break up the batteries and retrieve the lead, the workers used plant-made axes. They would then dump the contents into a large open oven. Everything was performed by hand in the first years. When the company later brought in a tractor to dump the lead mixtures in the ovens, Linardi said a "large cloud of [lead] oxide" would fill the air, emitted from the oven itself and from the factory's unfiltered chimney. He and his coworkers stood next to the open oven, barefaced, pushing the lead with long iron rods to melt it uniformly. Hand protection consisted of rubber mittens made at the plant itself. In later years, following unionization, the company provided facial masks, work gloves, and work boots to replace their thin sandals. Workers were given half a liter of milk per four-hour shift ostensibly to counter the ill effects of their intense lead exposure.

While workers were required to get medical examinations every two years for their health card, Linardi does not remember any other times being tested for anything. He said the company doctor colluded with management in keeping workers in the dark about health risks. Tests were often conducted following the weekend or after workers came back from holiday, presumably to allow their bodies to naturally flush some of the toxicants out of their systems. Although afforded little to no medical information, workers were sometimes informed of their lead levels through a marked numeration system. Each "mark" they received represented 25 µg/dL (micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood). Some workers reached four or five marks. In other words, these individuals suffered acute and highly dangerous blood lead levels (BLLs) of between 100 and 125 µg/dL . Most workers were merely told whether they were "apt" or not for work. José Radesca claimed that several at the plant died from lead poisoning, though their cause of death was never officially recognized. Workers allege that the State Social Security Bank (Banco de Seguros del Estado, or BSE), in charge of blood analyses and compensation claims, was fully complicit in withholding health information and covering up the extent and consequences of occupational disease at the plant. Doctors occasionally sent a worker to the hospital for several days of detoxification or "blood washing" (lavado de sangre), as workers called it then. Linardi was hospitalized once, but he "did not feel anything" nor understand why he was there. I asked Linardi when he first became aware of the dangers of lead: "Now, when they started messing around with the La Teja [lead poisoning discoveries]. The truth is that it was then when I began to find out that it is truly bad. Because I could see the factory, the filth of the factory, yes. But I've worked in other filthy factories too. The pig slaughterhouse for instance ... I'd come out much filthier from the slaughterhouse than from [Radesca]. I was used to working in all kinds of places. I didn't know it was as dangerous to health as it actually was."

Although the workforce eventually organized, the union remained weak, and it was further undermined by the military dictatorship that came to power in 1973. Due to the abominable conditions and repeated worker hospitalizations, the Montevideo Municipality eventually declared the factory "unsanitary" (insalubre) and ordered a plant slowdown and the structural reforms mandated by law under such a declaration. Instead, the owners shut down the factory and laid off all of the workers. After ten days, they rehired the workers and reopened the plant but without making any structural improvements. The workers charge, citing internal sources, that management bribed two military officials with important positions within the Ministry of Work, which promptly lifted the "unsanitary" order (Amorín 2001, 112). The factory went back to business as usual.

In a further effort to maintain worker compliance, management recruited workers from the countryside, particularly from a small town called Tala, in Canelones. They treated workers paternalistically, offering low-cost housing near the factory in order to keep them socially and politically isolated. Linardi, raised in working-class Montevideo within a sociopolitical context of strong labor organization and militancy, claimed he was "too communist" for the taste of the managers. Nevertheless, he soon won the trust of the Radesca management, and he was grateful for the steady employment. They rewarded his loyalty with delivery jobs around the city and to and from the owners' small farm (chacra) in the interior. One of the most common of Linardi's "deliveries" consisted of dumping lead tailings and battery waste in various parts of Montevideo. During the factory's period of most intense production during the 1960s and 1970s, Linardi took one dump truck load of sulfuric acid–laced lead oxide per day, later reduced to three loads per week when production slowed. The most common dumping site was along the riverbanks of the Miguelete, on a tract of land upon which the 25 de Agosto squatter settlement, among others, was later founded.

Settled on public land in the 1970s by a handful of squatters, by the 2000s 25 de Agosto had mushroomed to over 750 families with a few thousand residents. This settlement was emblematic of the explosive growth of squatter settlements (or asentamientos) since the 1980s, which by 2004 made up 15 percent of Montevideo's population (Ávila, Baraibar, and Errandonea 2004; Olesker 2004). As with other squatter settlements founded through "accretion," living conditions in 25 de Agosto were harsh and precarious (Álvarez-Rivadulla 2017a, 2017b). Houses were constructed of rudimentary materials such as wood and tin. Overcrowded homes sometimes housed eight to ten people in one- or two-room ranchos (shacks). Interiors usually had dirt floors, and there was no running water, sanitation, or electricity, except for those who dangerously "parachuted" their energy source from nearby electrical wires. Residents had a diverse range of occupations. Some had formal employment. There were a few informal garbage collectors and recyclers (hurgadores), drug dealers, and petty criminals, and many were unemployed. They faced deplorable environmental and sanitary conditions that ranged from frequent flooding and erosion, endemic fire hazards, water- and fecal-borne parasites, and rat infestations. Informal economic activities included the collection, sorting, and burning of garbage, as well as "cable burning," or the smelting of stolen electrical cables to recover copper and lead for resale on the black market. Both activities produced intense environmental pollution.

Unbeknownst to residents, homes and communal spaces had been established on the toxic legacies of Radesca's decades of dumping. Adults and children worked, slept, and played directly on a poisoned backdrop of battery casings and lead oxide smothering the land, polluting the water, and drifting into the air through dust and smoke. The casings either lay buried or were unearthed and used as part of the ranchos' improvised wall material. Mounds of refuse also descended into the river, and the smell of burning garbage and electrical cables filled the air. The 25 de Agosto settlement had some of Montevideo's highest soil lead contamination levels and some of its gravest cases of lead poisoning, with a few children reaching BLLs exceeding 60 µg/dL .

The stories of Radesca and 25 de Agosto illustrate the surprising and consequential legacies of ISI-era industrial production as it intersected with the new socioeconomic polarization and vulnerabilities of the neoliberal order. Polluted landscapes and suffering bodies became interconnected through the once invisible, long present, and newly exposed toxic trail of lead. This chapter offers a deeper history and genealogy of how Uruguay's leadpoisoning epidemic came into being. It traces how lead's victims and their advocates, particularly through the CVSP, responded to this previously "invisible" disease through the creative and difficult work of building an environmental justice movement. The chapter then turns to the ways the state made lead an institutional concern, directing research and establishing intervention norms and policies that both mitigated contamination and occluded its scope and responsibilities.

Anticipating arguments and analyses I develop in more detail throughout the book, this chapter offers an introduction to the contested dynamics at play between grassroots political action, scientific knowledge, and public policy. Informing my core analysis is that epidemics of environmental disease, far from being inevitably recognized or objectively rendered, are socially produced and thoroughly political. This is not to deny the all too real material and embodied suffering of its victims. But the public recognition of an epidemic — the symbolic power that gives it traction and mobilizes resources — is dependent upon social and political processes. Environmental epidemics are not only suffered. They are made through a complex dynamic of material, social, and political forces.


A Parliament-directed survey of the Uruguayan print media only turned up eight articles on lead contamination or poisoning in the entire decade of the 1990s (Legnani 2002, 10–11). Forewarnings and previous indications of lead contamination remained unarticulated at the bureaucratic level until 2001. Prior to this, Uruguay had established little or no specific legislation, programs, or protocol for the scientific detection and control of environmental chemical contaminants such as lead. Nonetheless, there were several warnings issued, one prior social movement against lead, and a handful of previously documented clinical cases of occupational and pediatric lead poisoning from the 1960s through the 1990s that could have resulted in political action but instead collectively fell on deaf institutional "ears."

The González Hermanos S.A. metals smelter, mentioned in this chapter's introduction, opened in the 1950s in Malvín Norte, a neighborhood in eastern Montevideo. The smelter provided lead for Uruguay's nascent domestic storage-battery industry, principally Radesca S.A. In 1961 neighbors in the vicinity of the smelter gathered signatures and presented a complaint to the Montevideo Municipality to protest the noxious black smoke emitted from its chimney. The municipality ignored the neighbors' recurrent complaints until 1973, when it ordered the factory shut down, around the same time as the Radesca "unsanitary" order. The military dictatorship came to power several weeks later, and as with Radesca, they reversed the order, allowing the smelter to continue operations throughout military rule (1973–85). After the return of democracy, the neighbors once again took up the cause. They filed a legal grievance in 1987, and in the next several years, the municipality subjected the factory to a series of mandated shutdowns, fines, and rehabilitations. The neighbors, eventually organized into the Permanent Assembly against Lead Contamination, clearly recognized the dangers the factory posed for the surrounding community. In 1988 they denounced "the danger of lead, which in addition to compromising the directly exposed workers, contaminates the thousands of citizens that live in the area (children, men and women) who slowly and gradually endanger their health, directly from the air they breathe, and indirectly through food, since butchers, bakeries and small stores surround the factory."

Students from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of the Republic initiated a university extension program in the area in 1990, meeting with neighbors and warning of the negative health effects from air and water contamination. The neighbors demanded access to industrial emissions data, but the municipality refused. In 1991 the municipality and the Toxicology Center of the University of the Republic then conducted a series of studies and blood exams of children and adults. The municipality contacted Swedish researchers from the University of Gothenburg to assist in the analyses. Based on the results, then-mayor Tabaré Vázquez finally ordered the factory to shut down permanently.


Excerpted from "Life without Lead"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Daniel Renfrew.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps,
Introduction: Saturn's Nightmare,
1 • To Live, Not Only Survive,
2 • This Is Not a Game,
3 • La Teja Shall Sing,
4 • The Two Fires of ANCAP,
5 • New House, New Life,
6 • We Are All Contaminated,
Conclusion: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope,

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