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Sunland Park, an area in New Mexico with a large Latino population, has been found to have a substance in its water that makes it undrinkable. As death tolls become alarming, residents are demanding for a health assessment in their communities.

Arsenic is a natural, semi metallic element that grows naturally in the soil of New Mexico. In water, the substance has no taste, odor or color. But, over time, it can cause a variety of health problems, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease, according to a new report by The Washington Post.

The Environmental Protection Agency has assessed Sunland Park's water operator, the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority (CRRUA), with 120 "violation points" over the last five years, a calculation based both on the number of times the utility has violated federal standards and the level of seriousness of the violations.

Based on these numbers, Sunland Park stands at second place nationally when it comes to detected problems for drinking water, falling right behind Jackson, Miss., where such issues collected around 182 points and earned national attention in 2022.

The issues in Sunland Park are of primary importance to low-income communities, most of which tend to be overwhelmingly Latino, according to The Washington Post.

One of the residents vying for attention is Rosana Monge. Her husband passed away in February at age 79. His 2023 records show he had been diagnosed with "exposure to arsenic."

"I have proof here of arsenic tests— positive on him, that were done by the Veterans Administration," Monge said as she faced members of the utility board in the southeast city in New Mexico. "What I'm asking is for a health assessment of the community."

Experts who reviewed Joe Monge's medical records said his levels were elevated but not extraordinarily so. Nevertheless, the widow and other town residents are convinced that arsenic levels are not only responsible for his death, but also for other health related problems including skin lesions and fetal development complications.

Despite their plea, The Post reports, they also believe the utility has not been taking the issue seriously.

Experts say arsenic can cause many of the conditions cited by residents, though such diseases are also rampant in low-income communities of color even without dangerous water conditions.

"There's a lot of injustice in poor, Latino communities... But how do you just nail down one/ how do you just say — look, is this the thing that's killing you?" asked Israel Chavez, a lawyer representing residents.

The Post also notes that public health experts and former EPA officials say politics and money have played an outsized role in how the agency determines maximum levels of contaminants allowed in drinking water.

But despite these actions, water contamination does not affect every resident the same.

The most impacted, according to The Post, are low-income areas and communities of color, such as Sunland Park, which is 94% Latino. In fact, studies show Latinos are exposed to arsenic in their drinking water at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group, even when controlling for socioeconomic factors.

Naturally occurring arsenic exists in pockets throughout the United States and particularly in the southwest, requiring municipalities to set up treatment plants that use varying techniques and chemicals to separate the arsenic from the water and extract it. The utility serving Sunland Park and the nearby Santa Teresa neighborhood has four such plants.

So far, it's not entirely clear how the problems with arsenic in the water began, but state and federal databases show violations piled up for years, even before several regional utilities were combined to form CRRUA in 2009.

The state is currently working on cracking down the water system, levying a $251,580 fine. The state also demanded CRRUA turn over records related to water testing.

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