Birth Defects Plague Tiny California Town

Emmanuel Alatorre Andrade is a happy baby.

At 20 months, he is doted on by his parents and his 4-year-old sister. But he's also at the center of a growing outcry among parents in a small central California town who fear industrial toxins are causing their children's birth defects.

Born with multiple facial deformities and missing part of his brain, Emmanuel is one of several children to have been born with severe birth defects in Kettleman City, Calif., a farming town state and federal health officials are now studying for possible environmental contamination at the request of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"There's something going on, we know," Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who is Emmanuel's cousin and spokeswoman for a group fighting for clean air and water in the town, told ABCNews.com. "There should have been a red flag raised a long time ago."

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Heartened that their pleas for help are finally getting heard, mothers of the children have joined with groups of activists to go door-to-door through the largely Spanish-peaking town of 1,500 to find others who have experienced miscarriages or given birth to deformed children.

"My child died. I will never recover," Magdalena Romero told ABCNews.com. "But there will be many children in the future, and I don't want that to happen to other mothers."

The cause is still under investigation, and the state Department of Public Health is slated to release its area study findings Tuesday.

Click here to locate Kettleman City, Calif.

The town is home to Chemical Waste Management Inc., the largest toxic waste dump west of the Mississippi. There is also heavy pesticide use from the acres of farms that employ much of the town's work force and a highway with heavy truck traffic runs through the middle of town.

"I think it's primarily Chem Waste," Emmanuel's mother, Maura Alatorre, told ABCNews.com. "We are surrounded by so many things, but I think one of the main reasons is this plant."

Six children have been born in two years with similar birth defects. Four have since died. All had cleft palates along with a variety of other ailments that include facial deformities, heart and brain problems and limb defects.

A seventh baby, who died in the womb when her mother was six months along, was also found to have severe deformities. Anecdotal evidence suggests there may also be a high number of women who have endured miscarriages before the end of their first trimester.

"It feels like we've always been telling people the sky is falling, the sky is falling," Mares-Alatorre, a spokeswoman for the residential activist group People for Clean Air and Water for Kettleman City, said. "For these mothers, the sky fell."

Chemical Waste Management spokeswoman Kit Cole said that the company has been calling for studies into the birth defect issue since last summer, but that they do not believe its facility is responsible.

"We're very confident that we're protective of human health and the environment, and that our site is very, very safe," she said. Cole said routine inspections of the company's groundwater, air and soil have all come back clean. "But that doesn't negate the fact that these families deserve answers."

The company has reported no similar health problems among their workers and their pregnant employees have given birth to healthy babies, the company said. Cole also noted that the air blows from Kettleman City toward toward the landfill, not the other way around.

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