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Environment, Water & Sanitation Program
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Toxic Synergy: Silent Crisis

Over two decades, Atzin investigated troubling observations of people looking unwell, beyond what could be attributed to malnutrition and parasites. Laboratory studies revealed arsenic and lead in the local water and soil. These are natural but harmful metals. Toxic metals were also found in the palm dyes (lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum) and clay cooking pots (lead).


Atzin gradually pieced together a complicated puzzle of toxicity in the village. At the beginning, it was easy to see the poverty. But it took listening, digging for data, and asking more questions that led to the environmental toxicity problems. The combination of malnutrition and exposure to multiple metals, even at low levels, constitutes a toxic synergy and produces a silent and slow poisoning.


At risk is the weaver who: eats a basic diet of corn with little protein, vegetables and fruit; weaves dyed palm; drinks and cooks with contaminated water; lives in a dirt floor hut; has no toilet; and cooks in a low fire glazed clay pot. At high risk are the pregnant women and young children.  They are less able to expel toxins and instead, absorb them.

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Exhaustion and feeling unwell

Villagers living in poverty are malnourished and underhydrated and therefore are vulnerable to the harmful effects of chronic exposure to even low levels of multiple metals and toxins.  These factors indicate a situation of “toxic negative synergy” in which the overall harmful effect of individual metals and toxins is more than the sum of the parts.  


The “toxic synergy” caused by the interactions of toxins and their subsequent effects on the human body is an important concept internationally, as is research on the accumulative effects of metals and toxins on human health.  The Atzin focus on “people” and “social process” as well as on the technical aspects of water and other environmental contamination exemplifies an integrated approach that can achieve a safe and sufficient water supply, reductions in toxic exposures, better nutrition with less consumption of junk food, and the subsequent decrease of overall risk to health.   


Atzin focused on the construction of dry toilets with rainwater harvest tanks (2000 – 2011), and the introduction of ecological rocket stoves (2010-2019). Monitoring of quality of water was done monthly from 2003 to 2011, showing clear patterns of the presence of metals. Additional research indicated the ubiquitous presence of the bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, complicating nutrient absorption in the gut.


The Atzin team: 1) built up convincing evidence of contamination with documentation and dissemination of findings; 2) focused on high-need service and development programs using an integrated approach, and provided information on the health effects to people one-on-one and in small groups; 3) formed alliances in Mexico and internationally; 4) designed three art exhibitions featuring village daily life and toxicity that toured in Mexico and in Canada, and produced publications on toxicity and its effects.


Discussions about this difficult issue and the health implications continue with relevant local, municipal and state authorities. For more information, click here.

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