Life Without Lead: WVU Anthropologist Researches Lead Contamination in Uruguay

This article was originally published by the WVU Eberly College.

Prior to regulations, lead-infused paint covered the walls of American homes, leaded gasoline fueled cars and lead pipes carried water into glasses.

Through these factors, Americans were in direct and regular contact with lead contamination. While the United States took precautions to help reform and prevent lead contamination in the 1970s, some countries around the world, such as Uruguay, didn’t take precautions until recent years.   

An economic crisis in the early 2000s resulted in Uruguayan families being forced from their homes. They often moved to “squatter settlements,” or informal housing located on precarious plots of land alongside river banks, in empty lots and even on old factory grounds.   

Daniel Renfrew
Daniel Renfrew

“People moved into settlements that had been used as dumping grounds illegally by different industries,” said Daniel Renfrew, associate professor of  anthropology at West Virginia University. “These industries used a lot of lead on-site, so they’re dumping all that on river banks. It was always polluting the area, but it wasn’t until the economic crisis pushed people to expand to these squatter settlements that their bodies were in direct contact with those contaminants.” 

Renfrew has a personal connection to the lead contamination issue in Uruguay. Born to a Uruguayan mother and American father, his mother’s family almost all live in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. While watching the news, he was informed that the contamination was centered in the area where his family lived. 

“My family and friends lived in the contamination zone, so at first I was very struck by it and worried,” Renfrew said. “As time went by, it became a very large-scale and urban societal and structural problem. This became a long-term project because people are still working on it and trying to tackle the issue today.”   

Street protest demanding housing relocation from a squatter settlement built inside a former metals foundry and steel mill in La Teja.

Renfrew began studying the factors that created a lead epidemic in Uruguay while he was in graduate school. While visiting family in Uruguay, Renfrew traveled to investigate the social impacts of lead contamination, examining how the government responded to the crisis, why the crisis happened in the first place and how residents responded, such as through social activism.

“This research provided me with a lens through which to understand big issues that were affecting Uruguayan people and continuing to affect Uruguayan people to the present,” Renfrew said. 

Not only did the economic crisis force residents in Uruguay to be in direct contact with lead contamination, it also led to food insecurity that caused iron and calcium deficiencies. As a result, children absorbed the lead at quicker rates. Lead contamination can cause pain in the abdomen and joints and can even be fatal in high levels.

“The situation in Uruguay has definitely improved, but it’s still an issue and it will be forever,” Renfrew said. “There are still active, ongoing sources of contamination. Some of those have been addressed, but there are still ‘legacy pollutants,’ such as paints in houses and the plumbing in homes.” 

Industrial waste flows into a canal in La Teja.
Industrial waste flows into a canal in La Teja.

Renfrew turned his research into an ethnography, “ Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis and Hope in Uruguay.” It is centered on an environmental justice movement of working class militants that used social activism to make the issue impossible to ignore.

“When lead was discovered and identified by the media and by some families, the militants mobilized already existing networks of social activism and political activism, so they were able to make this issue a big issue that all of a sudden was all over the media,” Renfrew said. “Everyone was advocating to force the government to respond.” 

The U.S. knows too well the effects of lead contamination, especially in places like Flint, Michigan, though Flint is not the only place that’s struggling. Reuters found that  almost 3,000 areasin the U.S. have lead poisoning rates that are higher than that of Flint but aren’t receiving recognition or recovery funding. “Lead is a problem that affects every place in the world that has ever been industrialized,” Renfrew said. “Researchers say lead is the mother of all industrial poisons because it’s the element that is most prevalent and is intimately tied to modernization, industrialization and urban infrastructure. West Virginia is in one of the regions that has pockets of industrialization and urbanization. Anyone around a coal-fired power plant is exposed to lead in levels that are too high, so it is an issue that West Virginians face. It’s an issue that Americans will continue to face.”

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