'No safe place'

Lead poisoning in the Dominican Republic

A woman and girl cross a bridge surrounded by trash
Bajos de Haina residents take on a recycling plant as factory pollution condemns them to poverty and health issues [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Bajos de Haina residents take on a recycling plant as factory pollution condemns them to poverty and health issues [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

Bajos de Haina, Dominican Republic - Elizabeth Mota is rarely able to see the sunrise when she wakes up in the morning.

The 48-year-old lives on the outskirts of the Dominican Republic’s industrial zone in Bajos de Haina, an impoverished port city in the San Cristobal province, just south of the capital Santo Domingo.

With at least 100 companies operating in this zone and two industrial parks, this area serves as the main industrial hub for the country.

The release of toxic smoke from the dozens of factories is ever-present in the lives of residents living near the industrial zone.

“When you wake up in the morning it still looks cloudy. But it’s actually just smoke from the factories,” says Mota, leaning on the side of her small, yellow house in the neighbourhood of Los Desamparados, meaning “the Forsaken”. “This contamination is killing us here. The more the factories grow, the more we become sick.”

Mota’s home is partially encircled by these factories, which are located behind cement walls abutting the roads. The zone resembles a shopping mall, with factory names and logos painted onto the plain cement walls representing chemical, pharmaceutical, metallurgical and other industries.

In 2006, Haina was found to be the third most toxic site in the world and it was once called the “Dominican Chernobyl”.

Anyone who could afford to leave the city did so long ago. Those who remain are the poorest of residents who cannot afford to relocate.

Skin lesions, respiratory problems, and a myriad of other health issues have become the norm for people living here. Mota suffers from respiratory issues and her teenage daughter has asthma and skin lesions that flare up into blisters when the smoke in the area becomes too dense. But one of the biggest concerns for the nearly 160,000 city residents is lead poisoning, which causes breathing and skin issues, and is believed to have led to severe neurological damage in children.

Mota, along with five other residents of Los Desamparados, tested positive in 2019 for lead poisoning – which residents allege is being caused by Verde Eco Recycling Industrial (VERI), an automobile battery recycling plant - a claim which the company vehemently denies. VERI says it operates under strict environmental standards and does not generate any contamination, smoke, or lead poisoning.

For decades, residents of Haina, including Mota, have led protest movements calling for the closure of these factories, but to little effect. “If I could wake up in the morning and see the sky, I would feel much better,” she says.

The factories contaminate every aspect of their lives, says Mota. “We are tired of it. We want to see parks and cultural centres - things that bring positivity to the people of Haina. These factories bring us nothing but misery.”

Source: Al Jazeera