Peru: toxic pollution linked to US corporation

Peru’s President Alan Garcia, “afraid of foreign investors,” is sitting idly by as a U.S. corporation devastates the city of La Oroya. Missouri-based Doe Run’s toxic lead smelting operation has children breathing sulfur dioxide pollution up to 300 times the level permitted by the World Health Organization. [EarthJustice, March 21] In addition, newborn babies are being born with lead poisoning inherited from their mothers, local residents and company employees are dying prematurely, the air quality is tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead, while parts of the water supply are contaminated by a toxic cocktail of chemicals. [The Observer, Aug. 12]

“I’ve had child patients who have lost feeling in their limbs and can’t control themselves,” said Hugo Villa, a local neurologist who conducted a study of newborn babies inheriting lead poisoning from their mothers.

The Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental think tank, named La Oroya one of the top ten most polluted places in the world, ranking alongside Chernobyl. But Doe Run officials contend that allegations of health problems caused by the company’s smelter are nothing but a bunch of hot air.

“I am not aware of any case of serious illness that may be attributed to our La Oroya operations,” spokesman Victor Andres Belaunde told the Los Angeles Times in June.

The Peruvian government’s response was to create a state of alert system for high levels of pollution. There will be three levels: watch, danger and emergency. During an emergency, children, pregnant women, the elderly and the ailing may be asked to stay indoors. Those who are healthy enough to continue with their lives outside will be advised to cover their mouths and noses with scarves or handkerchiefs–but not facemasks, because according to government spokesperson Carlos Rojas “people don’t want images that further dramatise the situation.” [IPS, Aug. 10]

No level of alert will require the company to cease operations. And thus far duct tape, although recommended by the Bush Administration as a defense against chemical or biological attacks, has yet to be suggested as a preventative measure for the 35,000 residents of La Oroya.

Cyril Mychalejko for Upside Down World, Aug. 16

See our last post on Peru.