The Public Health Picture in El Paso del Norte

Updated: Jan 17

For a fuller account see Community Stories, El Paso, Texas

The El Paso border region (Paso del Norte) includes El Paso, Texas, Anapra, NEw Mexico, and Ciudad Juarez, just across across the Rio Grande in Mexico. Hard-bitten by a century of aggressive industrialization and the fluid movement of resources in support of economic growth and globalization, Paso del Norte has for a long time felt the public health deficits and environmental damage that accompany unrestrained growth, extraction of resources and exploitation of working people.

ASARCO was a key player in this complex history, in which themes of industrial activity, immigration, urban growth and environmental degradation are densely woven together. One of the first outposts of modernization in the border region, the ASARCO smelter was positioned to receive ore and workers from Mexico; the wealth produced by ASARCO contributed to the economic vitality and growth of the El Paso region. In our Community Stories section we discuss the persistent concerns of people on all sides of the Texas/Mexico/New Mexico border about the hazardous impacts of smelting on labor and neighbors. The research of Dr. Philip Landrigan and others, which established ASARCO’s emissions as the cause of lead poisoning in Smeltertown children, marks a significant moment in public health history. This was a critical juncture when children’s health was publicly recognized as a poignant marker of industry’s fallout. Over the years, a dedicated few in the Paso del Norte region have persisted in asking questions, pressing for documents and details, and building cross-border alliances to challenge the company’s practices.

The controversy over the benefits and dangers of ASARCO in El Paso has sometimes pitted worker against worker and neighbors against labor. Given this lengthy debate, it’s important to explore the role and responsibility of local public health and environmental practitioners. What are the resources that local people can draw on as they seek information about potential environmental and health hazards? What responsibility do local universities, public agencies, researchers and doctors have for community health and well-being?

For many years the El Paso area was distinguished by its silence on these issues. Many of the resources the community might have turned to for help were indebted to ASARCO. The University of Texas at El Paso started out in the early 20th century as the Texas School of Miners and Metallurgy, partially funded by ASARCO, on land donated by the company. Attempts by local pharmacist Joe Piñon to learn more about the potential damage from Asarco’s emissions, especially lead, were ignored by professional and business networks. (see Controversy in El Paso on this website). The El Paso City/County Health Department tried to squelch Dr. Landrigan’s research and replace it with an industry-funded study that purported to prove that lead exposure was not damaging to children. In the late 1970’s, Dr. Magaña, a local pediatrician who helped lead the movement against Dr. Landrigan’s research, was made director of the El Paso City/County Health Department and Environmental District, a position he held for approximately 30 years. In 2005 Dr. Magaña was awarded a Border Health Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Mexico Border Health Council. Until the end of his tenure, Magaña continued to insist that community concerns about lead were overstated.

More recently, regional scientists have begun to look critically and carefully at the environmental and public health impacts of the smelter’s operations. In 2006 chemist Michael Kettering wrote:

"The following points … strongly support the contention that ASARCO is a major source of hazardous substances in environmental soils, accounting at most sampled locations for at least 50% of the total concentration of elements such as lead, arsenic and cadmium."

Among the key points listed by Ketterer:

"It is well established that ASARCO emitted large quantities of hazardous substances into the environment in the form of stack emissions as well as fugitive dusts…. It is well established that ASARCO emissions were mainly responsible for consistently elevated airborne concentrations of Pb [lead] and other metals in the immediate vicinity of the smelters."

Ketterer also wrote:

"It is not the case that ASARCO’s El Paso plant represents a unique, isolated case of smelter-related contamination. As is described elsewhere, nonferrous metal smelting is established with a high degree of scientific certainty as being a source of severe local and regional scale contamination. The findings in this study are consistent with the widespread environmental contamination that has been found at many other smelting locations." (Ketterer, 2006)

In 2009 the founding of a border medical school in El Paso, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, seemed to mobilize a newly committed group of physicians and scientists to take a stand. The Resolution of Concerned Physicians and Surgeons of El Paso signaled the possibility of a more hopeful era of straight talk and public responsibility. It gave needed support to a coalition of former ASARCO workers, environmentalists, public officials and citizens of El Paso, Juarez and New Mexico who were fighting to prevent ASARCO from renewing its air permit and re-opening its shuttered smelter.

(ASARCO was successful in getting its air permit, but then announced the smelter would not re-open. For more information see Under the Stack a documentary film produced by our project).

The Resolution stated:

Whereas the following are indisputable facts:

1. The Asarco Corporation in El Paso (ASARCO) has over the past century produced toxic byproducts of copper smelting, such as lead, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, cadmium and zinc,

2. These toxic chemicals have entered the soil and water supply, including but not exclusive to, the environs of their operation in West El Paso,

3. Their presence is dangerous to the health and welfare of those who rely on the city drinking water

4. That, in particular, lead is known to be harmful to the brain of growing children, potentially decreasing their capacity to think for the rest of their lives,

5. ASARCO has not cleaned up their factory site, which includes a toxic waste dump site, and

6. Resumption of smelting operations near what is now a densely populated area would produce more toxic chemicals in the air, soil and ground water,

Therefore, we, as physicians and surgeons concerned with the health of our patients in the El Paso region, resolve the following:

1. We unalterably oppose the resumption of smelting operations at the ASARCO plant;

2. We strongly insist that the Federal and State Government’s Environmental Protection Agencies enforce existing laws to compel immediate cleanup of contaminated sites in the region of the plant;

3. We strongly insist that ASARCO be made to honor its responsibilities to clean up its environmental pollution, notwithstanding its attempts to flout them through bankruptcy protection.;

4. We strongly urge that public officials consider condemning and seizing their property under existing environmental laws if Asarco is unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations to the citizens of El Paso.;

5. We strongly urge the people of El Paso to understand that the creation of (perhaps) 1800 new jobs cannot justify the poisoning of millions of people, including those who work in the plant, in a region that is now growing faster than most in the U.S.. Our region will suffer untold economic hardship from emigration and lack of attraction of new businesses if the environment is again degraded by the resumption of Asarco’s smelting operations;

Resolution of concerned Physicians and Surgeons of El Paso, January 22, 2009

Over the last decade ASARCO has become a central focus in discussions and monitoring of border ecology. A string of reports and research monographs addressing a damaged and industrially exhausted border have identified the old smelter as a source of pollution to be reckoned with. Recently, an important cross-border conference, convened by the National Library of Medicine, profiled El Paso as a city with significant contamination of soils, and a pattern of serious health disparities. It summarized concerns about border health in this way:

"Issues surrounding health and the environment are very important to the El Paso border region, including the ASARCO environmental smelter plan for cleanup … The old parts of El Paso as well as Juarez were indicated as having concentrated areas of lead contamination in the soil, and blood samples of children were examined which determined elevated concentration of lead in certain areas." (EHIP Partnership, 2009, pgs. 13,19)

Other bodies that have taken note are the US-Mexican Border office of the Pan American Health Organization, the tri-national Commission for Environmental Cooperation and the bi-national Border Environment Cooperation Commission (the latter two are products of the environmental side agreements to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.) The US-Mexico Border Environmental Health Initiative (of the US Geological Survey) is another touchstone of bi-national attention and, hopefully, demonstrates an intention to address the serious health threats and unequal odds plaguing the border region. Border area researchers are mindful of the need to strengthen their knowledge base and are conducting soil sampling and analysis. Professional organizations such as the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy are gathering data and publishing monographs. All this work is welcome and much needed after the decades of research-drought that accompanied the El Paso medical establishment’s overall disregard for the dangers posed by ASARCO.

Next: Public Health in the National Arena


Amaya, M., Pingitore, N. et. al., “Toxic Metals in the Air and Soil of the Paso del Norte Region,” US – Mexico Border Environment: Integrated Approach to Defining Particulate Matter Issues in the Paso del Norte Region. SLERC (SW Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy) Monograph Series #12, Ch. V., p. 131-136.

Asarco in El Paso, report from the office of TX Senator Eliot Shapleigh, November 2007.

Berg, Jeff. “Sunland Park, A Growing Environment,” Newspaper Tree, 4-17-06.

El Paso County/ Dona Ana County Metals. EPA Region 6 Superfund Program.

El Paso Get the Lead Out Blog.

Founded and maintained by community advocate Health McMurray.

A valuable collection of informative and revealing documents.

“Environmental Health Information Partnership (EHIP) Proceedings,” National Library of Medicine, El Paso, June 29 – July 1, 2009 Focus: US – Mexico Border Health.

Piñon, Joe & Philip Ortego, “Future Conditional: Biology and Politics of Air Pollution,” Ecology Today, November 1971, pgs. 30 – 36.

Resolution of Concerned Physicians and Surgeons of El Paso,” January 22, 2009.

Roberts, Chris. “EPA cleanup of Asarco site is sought,” El Paso Times, December 7, 2010.

Roberts, Chris. “EPA Chief Lisa Jackson hears impact of pollution on city’s poor,” El Paso Times, January 28, 2011.

US- Mexico Border Environmental Health Initiative (BEHI).

US – Mexico Border 2012 Program, EPA.

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