Foul, Gassy Odor in Mecca, California, May Be Sickening Residents

An unpleasant odor in a poor, predominantly Hispanic farming community in California may be having a strange effect on its residents – they are getting sick and no one knows why.

According to a story in the daily newspaper Press-Enterprise in Southern California, residents of Mecca, where 92 percent of the population is Hispanic, are saying the source of the odor is a soil recycling plant emitting a gassy odor.

A regional smog control agency, South Coast Air Quality Management District, took air samples and confirmed the odor came from a soil treatment plant – and even found small traces of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. But the agency, and the federal Environment Protection Agency, say the blame could lie elsewhere, according to the paper.

The problems began three months ago when children and teachers at a local elementary school became so nauseated by the fumes, they began throwing up. Some children were transported to the hospital, others were treated by paramedics.

One teacher who drove herself to the hospital said the symptoms were serious.

"It was overwhelming," the teacher, Shannon Tincher, told the paper. "I had chest pains and couldn't breathe, and I had high blood pressure."

A principal at the school, Saul Martinez Elementary School, told the newspaper the odor had forced her cancel outdoor classes and activities.

Many teachers and students at the 1,100- student school had been calling out sick, and the principal told the paper she didn’t know what affect the odor was having on the children.

"We don't know how it affects our health," the principal, Delia Avarez, told the paper. "That's the fear we have here."

The plant is operated by Western Environmental Inc., a private firm that sanitizes soil. Plant project manager Mark Patton told the paper that the company was doing all it could to reduce the odor, even shutting down part of the plant that contained oily water and believed to be the source of the fumes.

"We are dealing with our odors," Patton told the paper. "We are not putting our head in the sand and ignoring our odors. But what puzzles us is there are locations closer to us than the school, and they didn't report any of these kinds of odors."

The EPA is continuing to probe the incident.

For the full story, click here.

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