Friday, December 23, 2011

Paraíso Saved by Andrea Placeres

"Paraíso de Dios" is a very poor neighborhood in the rural town of Haina in the Dominican Republic. This Spanish name translates into "God's Paradise" but "Hell on Earth" would be a more accurate description. In 1997, a Not-For-Profit organization, "the Friends of Lead Free Children" (FLFC) sponsored a team of doctors that tested local residents for lead poisoning and found that about 90% of those tested had toxic levels in their blood. Lead poisoning is a serious health issue that has lifelong consequences. According to the Global Lead Network Website: “Globally, exposure to excessive levels of lead in the environment, the home, and the workplace impose immense costs, with many millions of adults and children suffering adverse health effects and impaired intellectual development.” It turns out that soon thereafter, Haina had the honor of being named the world's most lead contaminated site. The area's environmental pollution was attributed to a used car battery recycling plant that operated near the center of the town.

 For years, FLFC supported local residents in their struggle to shut down plant. The plant was eventually closed but the battle was far from won. Left behind was a plant with stockpiles of corroding batteries dumped and buried throughout the site. The lead dust continued to contaminate the surrounding town infiltrating the air, the water, everything and everyone. Health officials discovered that expectant mothers were passing the lead in their bodies to unborn fetuses during pregnancy and breast feeding. To address this immediate crisis, FLFC partnered up with a vitamin company to develop a prenatal supplement to prevent this deadly transmission from occurring. The supplement, which contains calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, B12, C and D, iron and folic acid was found to help prevent lead from passing from mother to unborn child.

I first became aware of FLFC's work as a volunteer for the organization in 2005. I participated that year in FLFC's annual Humanitarian Mission to the Dominican Republic which was sponsored by Health First, a New York community based insurance provider. Together with the FLFC team and a team of doctors affiliated with Health First, we traveled to Haina and other rural areas on the island, distributing prenatal supplements to clinics that service at-risk pregnant women. We were all inspired when we witnessed first-hand the fruits of our labor. We were literally saving these mothers and the children from the horrors of lead poisoning. Around us were children of all ages who clearly showed the effects of lead poisoning. We could not help them but we were preventing birth defects and learning disabilities for future generations. As we were guided through maternity wards, we could see healthy babies alongside babies that unfortunately had not received the necessary prenatal care. Seeing these young mothers smiling with their newborn babies in their arms was all I needed to convince me that our humanitarian work was important and that we needed do much more.

I was able to reach Steve Null, president of the Friends of Lead Free Children Non-Profit organization and conduct a telephone interview for this article. I had not spoken to him for about eight years but he sounded the same. He is a nonstop aggressive advocate for his organization. Steve even tried to recruit me back to FLFC to join him for his March 2012 mission to the Dominican Republic. He brought me up to speed on FLFC's activities over the past few years. There was a happy ending to the Haina story that I was unaware of. After thirteen years of pressuring local politicians and government health officials, FLFC and the local residents were able to get them to remove over 6,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil from the toxic site. This was done with the assistance of the Blacksmith Institute and Terragraphics, Inc. In 2010, the infamous site was officially inaugurated as a playground for the children of Haina. The playground has a mural of the community which advocates who fought long and hard for the playground.

For Steve, FLFC's work is far from over. He expressed concern about lead contaminants from other sources on this island nation. He emailed me numerous studies and resource materials that he thought might assist me with this article. The Global Lead Network also found: “Worldwide, six sources appear to cause the greatest lead exposures: gasoline additives; food can solder; lead-based paints; ceramic glazes; drinking water systems; and cosmetics and folk remedies. Other significant exposures result from inadequately controlled industrial emissions from such operations as lead smelters and battery recycling plants.”

Steve also reminded me that FLFC’s focus has always been on the importance of proper nutrition. Their "Nutrition for Life" program has expanded the delivery of prenatal supplements to the women in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. So far the FLFC has delivered 58 million supplements to 28 maternity hospitals. This coming March, FLFC plans to assist Clinica Altagracia, the largest maternity clinic in the Dominican Republic which has an average of 25,000 births a year.

Steve believes that his organization has been successful because they have focused their attention on one thing: insuring healthy babies. Many organizations take on too many issues and become overwhelmed. Since FLFC has very limited resources and receives no assistance from any government, they have to be very efficient. FLFC raises most of its funding to cover the expenses of manufacturing the prenatal supplements. They accomplish this by holding an annual Children's Health Festival in the Washington Heights Section of Manhattan. FLFC has no paid staff relying on a small but dedicated team of volunteers. After witnessing the difference that FLFC has made in Haina, I have decided to return as a volunteer.

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