By Natasha Chiofalo, MPH’13 in Environmental Health Sciences
The Matanza-Riachuelo, or “slaughter stream” in English, is a river in Buenos Aires so contaminated it is flammable. I first learned about this extreme industrial pollution in 2007 during a trip I took to Argentina after college. When I mentioned to people that I received my bachelor’s in Environmental Studies, they jokingly told me to go work in the Matanza-Riachuelo where my help could be used. Ironically, it sounded like my kind of place. Health, well-being, and helping others have always held an important place in my life, especially as they relate to the environment.
This summer I was fortunate to return to Buenos Aires to do my practicum in Villa Inflammable, or “Flammable Slum.” It is a shantytown located within the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin and named after its location within an industrial hub made up mostly of petrochemical companies. A landmark case in the Argentine Supreme Court in 2008 spurred the cleanup of both the river basin and surrounding communities to improve water sanitation and infrastructure, enforce environmental regulations, and understand illness in surrounding communities. For three months this summer, I contributed to an environmental health policy project in Villa Inflammable headed by the government agency in charge of the cleanup, Autoridad de Cuenca Matanza Riachuelo (ACUMAR).
I was active on several aspects of the Villa Inflammable study. Working closely with the toxicology director and qualitative team advisor, I collected biological data and evaluated the relocation policies the agency was developing. And with the administration of Hospital Argerich in the nearby La Boca neighborhood, I cleaned data, helped coordinate a continuing education course on environmental health for physicians, and used mapping techniques to visualize the relationship between housing and diarrhea cases.
Courses through the Environmental Health Policy track, such as Case Studies in Risk Assessment, helped me a great deal not only in understanding how environmental contaminants behave in the body and contribute to illness, but also how varying stakeholder points of view shape policy.
The people I met in Inflammable are some of the 1,200 families that will be relocated to a different neighborhood within the river basin in three years. Resolving the environmental health impacts in the community has required sacrifices on the parts of both residents and local industries. With increasing regulatory controls in the area, industries throughout the river basin have to comply or risk being shut down.
In the past, local industries have held the view that Villa Inflammable is inhospitable for residential use – that people who stay in the area will get sick. While the government has relocated families, a number of them have returned to Villa Inflammable. Some families I met want to remain in the neighborhood because they have lived there all their lives, or they do not feel the effects of the pollution.
Since my practicum experience, I have become more interested in toxicology and risk assessment to better understand how policies can address environmental exposures. Public health work is a field full of new challenges around every corner, and what we know about how the environment impacts health continues to develop every day. As I start my final year as an MPH student at Mailman, I’m looking forward to taking more classes that will solidify my training and prepare me to improve the environmental health conditions for populations most in need.