Children of lead

Children of lead

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By Marina Walker Guevara

There is a town in Peru where the houses, the streets, the hospital, the school and a few green areas are covered by a gray dust. The lead that comes out of the chimneys of a metal foundry that has brought work, "progress" and dozens of stories of children who do not get fat or grow and who swallow that toxic earth every time they put their fingers in their mouth.

Mishell Barzola is six years old and has long stopped growing. He is barely a meter tall and weighs 14 kilos, just slightly more than his two-year-old brother Steven. Her mother, Paulina Ccanto, suspects that lead has got into her body.

In La Oroya, Peru, where Mishell lives, children constantly breathe and swallow metal that travels through the air and settles on the ground. When they play soccer or marbles on the dirt streets, the wind blows toxic dust in their faces. When they put their fingers in their mouths, little ones literally eat lead.

“I don't see the girl well,” Paulina tells me sitting in the small room she rents in this Andean city of 33,000 souls, 180 kilometers southeast of Lima. Last night it rained and the leaks have been cruel to the bed shared by three of the woman's four children. A faint ray of sunlight seeps through the same hole in the ceiling that the water filters through.

“Mishell does not get fat or grow. The doctor told me it could be due to the excess lead ”, Paulina explains to me almost in a whisper, as if that way the threat would become less real. His twelve-year-old daughter Rosario speaks with the ease typical of children: “Sometimes we fill up with lead and we get sick. Our stomach fills with lead. With that we can also die ”.

It is February 2005 and Paulina is awaiting the results of a blood test that will clear up all doubts about Mishell's health. In La Oroya, several studies have shown that practically all children are poisoned with lead at levels three times higher, on average, than the maximum allowed by the World Health Organization.

The reason is on the other side of the coppery waters of the Mantaro River, in the huge cement chimney that for 83 years has been spitting its fumes in the faces of the Oroyinos.

The metallurgical complex of La Oroya is, at the same time, the drama and the reason for being of this city. The families of the 4,000 workers who work in its furnaces process lead, zinc, copper, gold and silver live on it. Thousands of traders and shippers depend on the foundry for their survival. And many others have got their children's names on the welfare list of the American company that has run the plant since 1997, Doe Run Co., North America's largest lead producer.

At times, and although reality contradicts her, Paulina tries hard to think that perhaps Mishell is the exception among the children of La Oroya. That the special food and hygiene care that she gives you have done their part. I also want to believe it. After all, I think, Mishell has enviable energy.

He runs up the steep stairs in his neighborhood, plays ball, and skips down the sidewalk with his friends. She is small, yes, but it does not seem that she was ill. The great tragedy of lead poisoning is precisely its stealth, the absence of immediate or very noticeable external signs. However, prolonged exposure to the metal causes irreversible damage to the central nervous system. It is a slow-acting but devastating poison.

I walk the narrow, labyrinthine streets of La Oroya Antigua, the area closest to the foundry. Chunks of urban life compete with almost colonial scenes: lack of running water, absence of a sewer system, garbage piled up on the river bank. There is an ironic beauty in the confusion of old houses painted blue, yellow and brown; improvised bars that start to fill up early and internet booths packed with children and teenagers.

Yesterday they paid at the company and the street market is overflowing with vendors selling everything from healing snail oil to freshly prepared fried trout. Skinny dogs eat the food scraps that fall from the stalls, and dozens of taxis crowd the streets and honk their horns. In the distance you can hear the heavy, metallic gait of the train leaving the foundry with its wagons full of minerals bound for Puerto Callao, in Lima.

Nobody seems to pay attention to the heavy, unbreathable air, nor to the acidic smell that permeates everything, chews it, burns the eyes and throat. Oroyinos tell me that in the long run one gets used to the “gases”, as they call it, a combination of lead, arsenic and sulfur dioxide, among other pollutants that the foundry emits. The smoke is trapped between the slopes of the hills where the city is crowded, chaotic.

Hugo Villa is a neurologist and has worked in La Oroya for 25 years. He receives me at the Essalud hospital, where the foundry workers and their families are treated, but he asks me for discretion and takes me to a room away from the public. The doctor has joined groups demanding that Doe Run comply with the environmental mitigation plan it committed to when it bought the complex eight years ago. But those who dare to make that claim, Villa says, are quickly singled out by union workers as "traitors." "Whoever talks about the health problem is going against the source of work," the doctor explains in a low voice, just like Paulina. For this reason, according to Villa, parents do not ask about lead when taking their children to the hospital. Nor do they express concern. “It's like they're scared,” says Villa, “I feel frustrated, powerless. It makes me angry. In 15 or 20 years, a whole generation will have psychomotor development problems ”.

The La Oroya plant was built by “the first gringos”, as the locals refer to the Americans from the Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation company that landed in these heights of the Andes in 1922. The metallurgical complex allowed the mines to live along along and across the central highlands of Peru, whose minerals needed to be processed before being sold in the international market. Due to the complexity of the processes carried out there -processing of “dirty” minerals, with a high content of sulfides - La Oroya became a reference point for metallurgical engineers from all over the world.

Within a few years of the plant's creation, farmers in the area began to complain that smoke was drying out their pastures.

Memories say that the hills of La Oroya at that time were green, and in the Mantaro, one of the most important rivers in Peru, trout and frogs were fished. Today the mountains that surround La Oroya are bare and stained black, and some residents of Mantaro say that "he is dead." In 2003, a national law declared the environmental emergency of its basin, for which the mines in the Cerro Pasco area and the dozens of Andean towns whose sewage waste ends up in the river are also responsible.

When the Peruvian government expropriated and nationalized the La Oroya metallurgical complex in 1974, soil, air and water pollution worsened. The settlers got used to living with red, injected eyes, and a handkerchief always at hand to cover their faces when "the smoke came." Little was known about lead poisoning in those days because blood studies had not yet been carried out on the population.

One morning in October 1997, a group of Americans signed a contract with the government of the now-fugitive Alberto Fujimori for $ 120 million. Missouri-based Doe Run Co. had just purchased the La Oroya metal smelting plant on more than advantageous terms. The sale agreement specified that for ten years the state company Centromín Perú, which sold the complex to Doe Run, would assume any legal claim attributable to the historical contamination of La Oroya. In that period, the Americans committed to developing an industrial emissions and effluent control program, among other environmental mitigation measures.

Doe Run and the New York company to which it belongs, Renco Group, face dozens of lawsuits in the United States for alleged damage to the environment and health caused by their companies. The US Environmental Protection Agency has just sued one of Renco's companies for alleged PCB contamination around the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where it operates a magnesium plant.

Renco's majority shareholder is the enigmatic billionaire Ira Leon Rennert who, according to the US press, owns a mansion on Long Island, New York, twice the size of the White House, with 29 bedrooms and 40 bathrooms. One of his companies, AM General Corp., is a major supplier of military vehicles to the Pentagon, including the famous Humvee.

The story of Doe Run in the small town of Herculaneum, Missouri, where the company has a lead smelter, is no less controversial. When lead values ​​in children's blood began to rise in 2001, the government ordered Doe Run to reduce emissions from its chimney and to renovate the soil in the gardens of the houses near its plant, among other measures to protect against the population.

Thus, in the last two years the company has complied with national air quality standards. A very different panorama from that of Peru, where the La Oroya smelter discharges about two tons of lead into the atmosphere per day, according to company documents. This is less lead than the Oroyinos breathed when the plant was in the hands of the Peruvian government, but it is 29 times higher than the lead emission at the Missouri plant.

Oroyinos, including Paulina Ccanto and her family, welcomed Doe Run with open arms. In its first years of operation, the company planted trees, organized painting competitions in schools, and opened a soup kitchen for the children of the poorest families.

Quickly the corporate colors of Doe Run, white and green, began to cover the buildings of the public schools, the metallurgical union and the police station, gift of the company.

Working conditions inside the plant improved and the company launched some environmental projects, such as the construction of a warehouse to store arsenic trioxide, a highly toxic substance. However, in 2003 an international audit conducted at the request of the Peruvian government showed that air quality had deteriorated in La Oroya between 1995 and 2002, while lead production had increased.

This was the beginning of a series of tug of war between the government and the company that culminated last year when Doe Run threatened to withdraw from Peru if the deadline to complete the environmental mitigation plan that expires in January was not extended. 2007.

Executives at the mining company argue that competition from China and poor lead prices until 2004 - now on the rise - left them without resources to complete the most important project from an environmental point of view: the construction of a lead plant. sulfuric acid, valued at US $ 100 million, which would considerably reduce the emission of gases and metals into the atmosphere. The plant would capture sulfur dioxide - highly irritating gases and primarily responsible for the so-called acid rain that weakens the soil and plants - and through a chemical process it would transform it into sulfuric acid, a marketable product.

The rumor that Doe Run could leave La Oroya quickly spread among the plant workers and the villagers, causing panic.

In an unprecedented act in the country's union history, the metallurgical union aligned itself with the company "in defense of the source of work." At the beginning of last December, a strike broke out that included roadblocks and claimed the lives of two elderly people, who along with hundreds of passengers in cars, buses and trucks were trapped for two days on the Central Highway, the main access road from Lima to the central region of the country and the jungle.

The scene contrasted dramatically with the reality of other towns in Peru, where in recent years the population prevented the expansion of mining. In the northern city of Cajamarca, the United States' Newmont Co. decided to end its plans to expand the Yanacocha gold mine, the largest in Latin America, after residents cut roads in September 2004 to protest water contamination.

In La Oroya, economic hardships won the game.

“They told us that the company was going to leave and that another owner was coming,” Paulina tells me, who participated in some of the marches last December in support of Doe Run. The woman acknowledges that the pollution from the smelter is hurting her family, but says that without the plant, La Oroya would disappear from the map in a few months.

When he died in 2004, President Alejandro Toledo signed Supreme Decree 046 that allows Doe Run and other mining companies in financial distress to apply for term extensions of up to four years on specific projects of their environmental mitigation programs.

The decree irritated national and international environmental groups, the Catholic Church and the regional government of Junín, to which La Oroya belongs. The position of the former Mining Director General, María Chappuis, who opposed the granting of additional time to Doe Run, was also claimed. "I believe in sustainable mining, not mining at any price," says Chappuis sitting on the veranda of her home in Lima. He pauses and continues: “I feel sorry for the people of La Oroya. They have not known anything else; they believe that all foundries work like Doe Run ”.

After several days of talking and welcoming me to her house, Paulina has become elusive. I notice her scared. Their children, who used to run to welcome me, now smile at me, but they continue on. Finally one of the girls tells me, in a hurry, that "the ladies of the Doe Run" have called her mother and asked her questions about her conversations with me. Paulina's anguish is more than justified. Although her husband is not a worker at the plant, three of their four children eat lunch every day in the company canteen.

Last Christmas, the little ones received electronic robots and Barbie dolls, gifts from Doe Run Peru. And twice a week mother and children bathe in the showers that the company provides to some needy families.

The "ladies" are social workers from Doe Run and they assure me that they did not want to intimidate Paulina, but rather to prevent her against "sensational journalists."

A few hours later I knock on Paulina's house again. This time the woman lets me in and tells me that the Doe Run social workers have visited her and told her that it is “okay” to talk to me. "I am very grateful to the company for the help it gives me," she hastens to clarify, nervous.

For a few seconds we both looked at each other in silence. I ask about Mishell's blood test. He tells me he doesn't know anything yet. “They are already taking a long time to deliver the results,” says Paulina with no little anguish while carrying Steven on her back. Mishell is one of 788 children from La Oroya Antigua who participated in a lead study conducted jointly by the Ministry of Health and Doe Run in late 2004.

After several months of waiting for the results, rumors have begun to circulate among the neighbors. The comment, at the bottom, is that the lead values ​​have come out high. That nothing has changed too much for the children of La Oroya despite the company's efforts to promote hygiene campaigns in the city. Paulina does not echo the rumors. She prefers to do rather than speculate. So she buys chicken whenever she can to make Mishell's soup more nutritious, and sends the girl every morning to the community handwashing organized by Doe Run in the neighborhoods to prevent lead ingestion in boys.

Those in charge of carrying out these hygiene campaigns are the so-called “environmental delegates”, a group of some seventy volunteer housewives who, according to the most critics, in addition to sweeping streets and washing hands, spread the message of the company among neighbors. They are, they say, an effective machine of social control.

The reception that the delegates give me is not exactly warm. One of them approaches and interrogates me in the street about the reasons for my visit. Specifically, he asks me why I am talking so much with Paulina and her children.

“How do you think we feel when we are told that our children are Mongolian? A lot of kids from here go to university, ”another delegate, Elizabeth Canales, yells at me when I introduce myself. The woman refers to journalistic television programs in which the possible impact of lead on the intellectual development of the children of La Oroya has been discussed.

In a few minutes I am surrounded by seven women who, leaning on their brooms, interrupt each other and tell me that yes, there is contamination, but that it was worse before and that “after all, Doe Run provides food and clothing for the children, something that never happened when the government ran the plant ”.

“Clean up, ladies, clean up. Move like you're dancing, ”I hear Canales yell at the other delegates as I walk away from Calle 2 de Mayo. Ladies do well to clean, although experts doubt that it will do much good if the source of contamination is not diminished.

A recent study by the California NGO Occupational Knowledge and the Labor Foundation in Lima showed that 88% of soil samples taken from homes, schools and businesses in La Oroya had high lead values.

A third of the families in La Oroya live in houses with one room, without a bathroom or running water. That is why life extends to the sidewalk, where women cook, wash and bathe their young children in plastic basins. But "when the fumes come," they tell me, the mothers make the boys enter the houses, hurriedly, and close doors and windows behind them.

“Living here is in vain,” Carmen Cóndor, a single mother who spent several nights awake, tells me in 2003 when doctors told her that her son, Brayam Rosas, had high levels of lead in his body, “the truth is that we are all contaminated ”.

Although they do not know each other, Carmen and Paulina share the same anguish: their children do not grow, a common characteristic among children poisoned with lead. Seven-year-old Brayam is 12 centimeters shorter than he should be based on his age and weight. "I'm flat," the boy tells me, resting his palm on his head and smiling innocently. "Sometimes I don't eat much," Brayam says. Carmen nods her head. “I am afraid that it will stay small, that it will no longer grow,” the woman tells me, pressing one hand against the other.

Some political leaders, on the other hand, find no greater reason to be anxious. "There is probably a child sick with lead, but I don't know any child hospitalized for that cause," says Clemente Quincho, mayor of La Oroya, who led the December strike to pressure the Peruvian government in favor of Doe Run. Sitting in his government office, surrounded by diplomas of merit and a trophy he won in a soccer tournament organized by Doe Run, Quincho denies those who say the company manipulates the municipality. "I declined trips that the [environmental] NGOs offered me and the trip to Missouri that the company offered me," he clarifies. Later he settles down in his chair and tells me that his three children grew up in La Oroya and that, nevertheless, "they are very intelligent."

Other parents, however, would like to pack their bags and take their children from here forever. Lucy Echeverría is one of them since her eight-year-old daughter, Diana, has asthma. For kids with respiratory problems, the threat of lead is compounded by sulfur dioxide.

“There are times when they release too much gas. Everything turns to mist and the sight burns. I can't breathe. My daughter tells me it's ugly here and we'd better go somewhere else, ”says Lucy, who on vacation sends Diana to some relatives in Huanoco so that the girl can rest from the fumes.

The smelter's chimney emits more than 800 tons of sulfur dioxide per day, exceeding five times the maximum permissible limits established by Peruvian law. These are the emissions that would be reduced with the construction of the sulfuric acid plant that Doe Run wants to postpone until 2011.

Far from the smokes of La Oroya, sitting in a glazed office in the charming San Isidro neighborhood of Lima, Bruce Neil, president of Doe Run Peru, assures that the company applies the same environmental standards in South America as in the United States. It says emissions have been cut by more than a third and will continue to improve.

“We have a plant that is 83 years old and that we have managed for 7.5 years and it is presented as if it were an American company. That categorization is not correct, it is not fair, "adds Neil. Sitting silently next to him is his right hand, José Mogrovejo, who was director of Environmental Affairs for the Ministry of Energy and Mines of Peru, Doe Run's oversight body, before accepting the position of Vice President of Environmental Affairs for Doe Run. Peru.

“I am a father and I am a grandfather,” Neil tells me in slow English, “the fact that there are children with high levels of lead is absolutely unacceptable. We have to lower that number to zero ”. Then he tells me the other part of the story: “Metal improves our lives. This building is made of minerals and metals, and cars and your engraver too. We cannot live without metals ”.

At six years old, Mishell Barzola does not understand corporate interests, environmental rights or social protest. She plays distractedly with the Barbie doll that Doe Run gave her for Christmas. “She is a bride, with a veil and with music,” Mishell tells me, fixing her shiny blonde hair. "We take care of these toys because they are the only ones we have," he says seriously. In my last days in La Oroya I notice that Paulina is more and more anxious about the results of Mishell's blood test. Almost daily he goes to the medical office shared by the company and the government to ask if there are any news. And every day he comes back with the same answer: "later". Paulina tells me that she wants to learn more about lead to better care for her children, and that the social workers at Doe Run have promised her and other mothers that there will be a talk later.

The woman is hopeful that the company will deliver on its promises and clean the air in La Oroya. “Meanwhile, they tell me that the main thing is hygiene and food. I take great care of cleaning. I bathe the children, wash their hands. When the gas comes I lock the children here. They are used to it. I close the door and the windows until the fumes stop. "

At the end of March, finally, Doe Run and the Ministry of Health of Peru have released the results of the lead study. All but one of the 788 children under the age of seven tested had three times more lead, on average, than the maximum of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood allowed by the WHO. Almost half of the little ones already have psychomotor deficiencies. Five children have so much lead that, by US standards, they are at risk of death. I think of Paulina. I imagine her washing her family's clothes in a community pool on the sidewalk, just as she found them every morning, or stubbornly cleaning up the toxic dust that settled on her furniture and window lintels and always reappeared. , a few hours later, in the same places.

Their efforts have failed to stop the advance of lead in Mishell's kidneys, lungs, brain and liver. The little girl has 42 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, four times the health standard. Her two-year-old brother Steven is close to 50 micrograms.

Doe Run and the Ministry of Health have rushed to design a contingency plan to care for the children most affected by the contamination. A group of boys will go to school in a town near La Oroya to avoid, at least during the day, exposure to toxic emissions. The other children are undergoing medical and nutritional monitoring. But it is uncertain what will happen to the thousands of boys who live in La Oroya and who did not participate in the blood study. In April, a judge ordered the Health Ministry to take urgent measures to protect all the inhabitants of La Oroya, but Peruvian officials have appealed the resolution.

In my mind I draw parallels with the city of Herculaneum, Missouri, where you no longer see children playing in the vicinity of the foundry because Doe Run, under the strict watch of the local government, is moving them all to neighboring towns, where they can grow unleaded. But La Oroya is in Peru, and in Latin America, the dialectics are usually tricky: work or health, economic survival or the environment. Paulina Canto and her children know it well.

Winning article of the Reuters-IUCN award for Environmental Journalism 2006, written by Argentine journalist Marina Walker

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