HEAVY METAL AIR POLLUTION IN LA OROYA, PERU

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According to Time Magazine, La Oroya, Peru, is one of the 10 most contaminated places in the world. AIDA and APRODEH, two non-governmental organizations in the environment and human rights spheres, are working to address this issue. Currently, their teams of attorneys are building a case against the state of Peru for failing to bring Doe Run Peru, a smelter located in La Oroya, into compliance. This case is being brought to the Inte-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of a group of La Oroya residents and patients who are suffering from adverse health effects thought to be caused by contamination from the smelter.

We, a team of graduate students at Yale University, have been collaborating with the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (known as AIDA, its Spanish acronym) through the Yale course, “Environmental Protection Clinic.” Last month we visited Peru to present the preliminary results of our data analysis of ambient air quality and medical records in La Oroya.

We conducted an air quality analysis of heavy metals, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide using data from 2009 to 2014.  The results revealed that levels of lead, cadmium and sulfur dioxide exceeded the Peruvian standards in many instances. It was evident that when the plant was in operation, air quality in the city worsened.

In La Oroya, the smelter is located close to the population center. Adverse health effects have been exhibited in the people within and beyond the city center. According to our analysis of medical records, symptoms identified in patients in La Oroya include malnutrition and weight loss in children; respiratory ailments; and gastrointestinal issues, all of which are representative of exposure to lead, cadmium, and sulfur dioxide.

During our visit, we met with officials and experts at the municipal government and health centers in La Oroya, as well as with beneficiaries of the case. We also met with the director of OEFA, the Peruvian environmental monitoring and evaluation agency. Through these meetings, we shared our results and discussed the future strategies and implementation mechanisms that will need to occur in order to solve this environmental health crisis. We learned that the national heavy metals strategy, though ostensibly holistic, focuses almost exclusively on lead. While the effects of lead on the human body are well-known, medical experts cited a need for a more comprehensive strategy to delineate treatment for patients with exposure to other heavy metals.

Medical misinformation is also a concern for patients. For example, some patients reported being told by staff in positions of authority that “lead will only harm you if you already have malnutrition.” Others reported being told that the severe respiratory problems they were experiencing were due to high elevation, and that “sulfur dioxide does not affect your health.”

This is a complicated social situation. The patients who are part of the case have received harassment and threats from those who fear that the case will cause a shutdown of the plant, and thus a loss of jobs.

Ideally, this analysis and the corresponding international human rights case will be a wake-up call to the Peruvian government to put measures in place to protect the health of its people.

This post was written by Madeleine Faucher ’16 M.E.M., Hassaan Sipra ’16 M.E.M., and Nicole Wooten ’16 M.E.M.