The Baby Killer

updated 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE BLUEBONNETS WERE IN BLOOM IN Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas, when word began to spread that a mysterious killer was on the loose. At first obstetrical nurses at the Valley Regional Medical Center thought it was just a tragic coincidence when two babies, delivered a day apart in March 1991, were afflicted with a rare abnormality: They had no brains. But the nurses' concern turned to horror three weeks later when three more babies with the same extremely rare and fatal defect—anencephaly—were delivered during a 36-hour period at the small, 155-bed hospital. None of the five infants survived more than a few minutes outside the womb. "A baby with anencephaly is not a pretty sight," says nurse Connie Riezenman. "The round part of the head isn't there."

Riezenman, the mother of four healthy children, was deeply shaken. "I thought, 'I'm so lucky my kids turned out okay. This is scary, very scary.' I called the state health department and said, 'Something is going on. I don't know what it is.' "

More than two years after Riezenman sounded the alert, health officials remain baffled by the startling incidence of anencephaly in Brownsville, where since January 1989 at least 36 children have been born with missing or incomplete brains. "We still do not know why," says Dennis Perrotta, chief of epidemiology for the Texas Department of Health. While scientists continue to investigate possible causes, ranging from dietary deficiencies to toxins in the air or water, the anencephaly outbreak has focused attention on the poverty and pollution that are endemic to the border and are part of the focus of the current congressional debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The anencephaly mystery is playing itself out as a tale of two cities. Though Brownsville (pop. 115,000) is nominally an American community, it is within shouting distance—literally—of the third world. Two bridges across the Rio Grande link the city with Matamoros (pop. 380,000), a jerry-built Mexican metropolis where shantytowns with open sewers are nestled amid an ugly sprawl of industrial plants that produce a mix of goods from toys to car bumpers. Environmental activists say these factories, many of them American-owned, have been spewing toxic chemicals into the air and water. This, they believe, may be causing health problems on both sides of the border, including an incidence of anencephaly that is roughly equal in Brownsville and Matamoros and more than five times the average rate in the U.S.

In response to NAFTA critics like Ross Perot, who has charged that the trade pact would prompt American companies to swoop across the Rio Grande in even greater numbers in quest of cheap labor and lead to "back-door deregulation of U.S. health and environmental standards," President Clinton has proposed setting up a joint U.S.-Mexico commission to clean up pollution along the border. The situation is already so serious in Brownsville that coin-operated kiosks dispensing drinking water have cropped up around the city. Meanwhile, despite the continuing scientific uncertainty about the cause of anencephaly and other birth defects, a group of 20 Brownsville families has filed suit against 36 Matamoros-based companies, claiming their babies were the victims of "harmful substances placed into the local environment."

Ramon Salazar, 27, a furniture company deliveryman, and his wife, Teresa, 30, are one of the couples represented in the suit. Having already suffered two miscarriages, Teresa was ecstatic when she became pregnant in late 1990. "We knew there wasn't going to be enough money for toys when the baby was born, but we had lots of hopes and plans," she says. Then, five months into the pregnancy, a sonogram revealed the baby had no brain. The couple reluctantly opted for an abortion. Ramon was present on March 29, 1991, the day of the operation. "It was painful when we saw the baby and how its head looked—the little head, open on top," he says.

Across the border in Matamoros, Faustina de Verdines, 35, was rushed to the hospital to deliver her seventh child in April 1992. She and her husband, Hermilo, 43, who assembles automobile parts in a local factory, live in a shack in the city's crowded slums. The couple's six children had all been born healthy, and the parents had no reason to suspect this birth would be different. "I was shaken," says Faustina. "They wouldn't let me see her." Hermilo did see the stillborn child. "It was God's will," he said after the baby's burial.

Anencephaly occurs in the very early stages of pregnancy, when the neural lube—an embryonic structure that normally develops into the brain and spinal cord—fails to close. Some studies suggest this failure may be triggered when a woman becomes pregnant while suffering a deficiency of folic acid, a substance believed to be crucial to proper fetal development. Last year the Centers for Disease Control recommended that all women of child-bearing age in the U.S. take daily supplements of folic acid. In Brownsville, however, state and federal investigators tried and failed to find a link between the diet of expectant mothers and the outbreak of anencephaly.

Isolating an environmental cause of anencephaly has proved equally difficult. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a study of pollution along the border and will try to determine whether it has contributed to the outbreak. But Dennis Perrotta, for one, is skeptical that the study will yield any easy answers. "No one here would be surprised to discover that the noxious environment caused this cluster of anencephaly cases," he says. "However, it would be shortsighted lo exonerate one cause and pinpoint another just because a lady lives a mile from a polluted river."

The continuing uncertainly over the cause of the anencephalic births has left women like Teresa Salazar in torment. After losing her baby lo anencephaly two years ago, she is pregnant again and due to deliver in November. Even though doctors tell her the baby is developing normally, she says, "It has been very difficult thinking it could happen again."

DAVID GROGAN
MICHAEL HAEDERLE and JOSEPH HARMES in Broivnsville, ANNE MAIER in Houston

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