‘I never questioned anything’
Mark Flores’ mother was born Yvette Yturralde in Carlsbad, New Mexico, on May 27, 1957. Her family moved to San Jose when she was 2. Her father, Santana, was a plasterer. Her mother, Velma, was a seasonal cannery worker. She had two brothers and one sister.
By the time she was 18, in 1975, Yvette was a few credits short of completing high school. She enrolled in a program that helped her get a GED diploma and find a job. She landed at a company called Spectra-Physics, which made lasers at a plant in Mountain View, northwest of San Jose in what was becoming known as Silicon Valley.
For 4 ½ years, eight to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week, Yvette worked in a small, stuffy room in Building 5, fusing together glass tubes at a precise angle. A man worked behind her.
Yvette sat at her assembly station with a spray gun, applying a greenish adhesive to the glass tubes and using a blow torch to cure it. A fan turned weakly above her. “It was like no air was coming in there,” she said. When it got too bad, she’d flee to the larger glass-blowing area in Building 5 for relief.
Yvette mixed the adhesive in a beaker using powder from a box and liquid chemicals. “I was never told to cover myself up or anything when I did that,” she said. She would learn many years later that she was being exposed to lead and the solvent methanol, both of which can sabotage a fetus. At the time, she said, “I never questioned anything.”
In 1978, the year before she gave birth to Mark, Yvette had a miscarriage in the women’s restroom at Spectra-Physics. “I had severe cramping. … I went in there and I was bleeding and I just remember being in such excruciating pain.” None of her managers ever followed up to ask if she was all right, she said. She recalls going back to work two days later.
Early evidence of fetal harm
Decades before Yvette Flores became pregnant a second time, researchers knew that a parent’s exposure could impair, and perhaps kill, an unborn child.
In a 1911 lecture to the Eugenics Education Society in London, Sir Thomas Oliver, a physician, spoke of his hard-won success “in securing the emancipation of female labour from the dangerous processes of lead-making …. Lead hits hard the reproductive powers of man and woman, but especially of woman.”
In the 1950s came alarming reports out of Minamata Bay, Japan, where a chemical manufacturer had dumped an estimated 27 tons of methyl mercury over nearly four decades, contaminating fish, a staple of the local diet. More than 900 people died of mercury poisoning and some 2 million suffered neurological damage or permanent disability. Babies born to mothers who had eaten the tainted fish also developed symptoms, akin to cerebral palsy, of what became known as Minamata disease.
Around the same time, thousands of children worldwide whose mothers who had taken the drug Thalidomide for morning sickness during pregnancy were born with limb deformities.
Over the course of a year, beginning in June 1975, the children of three men who worked in the same building at a GAF Corporation chemical plant in Rensselaer, New York, were born with heart ailments. Suspicion fell on a herbicide, oryzalin, which was made in the building. Federal health investigators later confirmed what they called an “unusual cluster of birth defects” at the plant but stopped short of blaming oryzalin.
One of the GAF babies, Brian Purcell, died at five days old. “Nobody expects to lose a child that quick,” said Brian’s father, Doug, now retired. “He was delivered by C-section, and once his heart problems developed they moved him to another hospital. We never got a chance to say goodbye.” He and his wife had no more children.
In early 1979, just before Mark Flores was conceived, newspapers including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal carried a story out of Willow Island, West Virginia. Female workers of childbearing age at an American Cyanamid chemical plant said the company had pressured them to undergo sterilization so they could continue to work around lead in the plant’s pigments division. Those who refused were told they’d be reassigned to lesser-paying jobs or fired. Five women went through with the procedure.
Yvette knew none of this, logging her hours in Building 5 to the very end of her pregnancy with Mark. Had she suspected her work could hurt him, “I would have run out of that place,” she said. “I would have worked in fast food.”
As Mark grew, his parents came to anticipate his quirks and deficiencies. He’d take off running and have to be chased down. He could ride a tricycle but couldn’t stop. He could be coaxed into talking only with an offer of food and began putting on weight. His father, David, a truck driver, once told Yvette, “I would give my right eye, my arm, anything, just to go for a minute into his brain and see what he’s thinking.”
Yvette and David insisted that Mark get out in the world. This policy led to some uncomfortable, occasionally unnerving, encounters. People would stare rudely. When Mark was 12, he accidentally bumped into a woman at a crowded Target store. The woman’s husband, convinced that Mark had acted intentionally, became enraged and was preparing to punch him when Yvette stepped in.
The episode appears to have traumatized Mark. As Yvette was recounting it last summer, Mark, sitting next to her on the sofa in their mobile home, snapped out of his torpor and began crying. “Mom, I’m sorry,” he said, putting his head on Yvette’s left shoulder. She assured him it wasn’t his fault. “Mama takes care of you. It’s you and me, right?”
Mark was especially close to his father, whom people called Güero — Spanish slang for someone who’s light-skinned. After David died in a motorcycle accident on December 23, 2007, Mark was beside himself and began ransacking the house. “He was very physical because he couldn’t verbalize,” Yvette said.
He found solace at the Multiple Intelligence Training Center, an adult day care center founded by one of his former teachers. He joined the other clients in dancing, singing and gardening. On holidays, Yvette has him draw pictures for his father. “He does 75 pages of circles. I say, ‘OK, put them by your bed and the angels will come and pick them up and take them to your daddy up there in heaven.’”