In this mining town in Peru's Andean highlands, there is a shelter, but not for the victims of a war. The only bombardment escaped by the young children taken there every day comes from toxic emissions that have already done plenty of damage.
The shelter, which is actually a daycare programme, is run by the company responsible for the lead dust and toxic fumes. Under different owners, the huge smelting complex in La Oroya, a town of 35,000 people located 180 km east of the Peruvian capital in the central region of JunÃÂn, has affected the health of the local residents for generations.
Children under the age of six with blood lead levels of over 45 micrograms per decilitre (mcg/dl) of blood are bused to the childcare facility in a school in Casaracra, a half hour drive from La Oroya. (The acceptable limit, set by the World Health Organisation, is 10 mcg/dl.)
But the programme financed by the U.S. company Doe Run is merely a palliative measure, aimed at removing the children with the highest blood lead levels from the environs of the metallurgical complex for eight hours a day, while the plant's smokestack continues spewing out sulphur dioxide, lead dust, cadmium and other heavy metals.
If the town of La Oroya were a hospital, the school-cum-shelter would be the intensive care unit.
Three times a day, the children at the daycare centre are served nutritional meals containing natural products like amaranth, an Andean grain rich in protein. They are also bathed using a special shampoo that removes metal particles that adhere to the scalp and skin, and they are given the medicines they need.
It's 8:30 AM and the bus from Doe Run is about to leave for Casaracra. Only 67 of the 80 children registered in the programme have shown up today. "Sometimes the parents don't value these services, and don't send their kids," says Rully HuamanÃÂ, the programme's nurse, who receives the children with a big smile.
In the programme, the children are put in groups with names typical of childcare centres: "little angels", "mice", "little lions", "bees", "bunny rabbits" and "bear cubs." But signs on the classroom doors show that this is not just another daycare centre.
Some of the names stand out in particular: Anabella Quispe Hidalgo, 20 months old, level IV (over 45 mcg/dl); Leonel Nahui Rodrigo, 31 months, level V (over 70 mcg/dl); Conan Quispe Flores, 23 months, level IV; Stuart Delgadillo Caso, 22 months, level V.
Conan has severe anemia, very little appetite, cries frequently and never smiles. He is one of the 14 children who are scheduled to be taken to Lima for intensive treatment. Stuart has the highest lead level: 91 mcg/dl.
The children also suffer chronic malnutrition. The doctor who heads the programme, Roberto Ramos, says their poor diet is a more pressing problem than the pollution produced by the metallurgical complex.
"My children also grew up amidst the lead, and now they are university students, thanks to the adequate diet they received," Ramos comments to IPS
The multimetal smelter has operated in this town since 1922. In the first few decades, it was run by the U.S. Cerro de Pasco Corporation. In 1974 it was taken over by the state-run CentromÃÂn PerÃÂº, until it was privatised and acquired by Doe Run, a company based in the U.S. state of Missouri, in 1997.
For the last two years, the company has run 14 social programmes in conjunction with the Health Ministry, including the daycare centre, daily street cleaning with industrial sweepers, public showers, a hand-washing and hygiene campaign, and a soup kitchen aimed at addressing the iron deficiency that increases the body's absorption of lead.
The company does not deny that there are serious cases of elevated lead levels, but it tells the residents of La Oroya that the effect of the toxic gases and heavy metal particles can be mitigated with a good diet and improved hygiene.
Doe Run Peru has carried out a campaign to further that idea, through pamphlets and radio programmes, while encouraging the creation of community organisations and associations of health orientators. It also provides workshops and vocational training in areas like handicrafts and weaving.
"I thought that at my age, I would not be able to work any more, but I learned to make cakes thanks to the company," Ciria VÃÂ¡squez Rivera, 60, tells IPS.
But in the meantime, there is little information available on the extent to which toxic emissions have been reduced since 1997, when the company began to operate in La Oroya and committed itself to upgrading the plant to meet Peru's environmental standards.
Not even the Ministry of Energy and Mines, in charge of monitoring the industry, has precise statistics.
In an interview with IPS, the ministry's head of oversight of the mining industry, Luis Saldarriaga, preferred to talk about the targets set by Doe Run for the reduction of pollutants. He said that his office did not have complete figures on emissions in La Oroya over the last three years.
When IPS insisted, however, official information on emissions was finally provided. Although incomplete, the figures show that at some monitoring stations, Doe Run far exceeded the maximum permissible levels for smokestack emissions, as well as air quality standards for particles of lead, arsenic, copper, zinc and sulphur dioxide, during some months in 2005.
Although Doe Run has made progress in reducing lead emissions, it has done very little with respect to sulphur dioxide, which causes irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, as well as respiratory problems.
Saldarriaga reported that 810 metric tons of sulphur dioxide a day are released by the smelter's smokestack.
Roughly 85 percent of the gases are produced during the processing of the minerals, said engineer Carlos Vivas, in charge of projects at Doe Run Peru.
The gravity of the situation was underscored by Fausto Roncal, director of ecology and protection of the environment at the governmental General Office of Environmental Health (DIGESA).
La Oroya should have been declared in a state of emergency (the most critical level) up to 11 times in October and 15 times in November, when emissions of sulphur dioxide surpassed the maximum permissible level, Roncal told IPS.
Despite the obvious pollution, only Doe Run constantly monitors air quality in the town. DIGESA carries out measurements just three times a year, and the rest of the time merely processes the information provided by the company itself.
Roncal blamed this on funding problems, but said a monitoring station would be installed next year.
In the meantime, Doe Run buses children with the highest lead levels to Casaracra, to remove them from the vicinity of the smokestack.
A team of scientists from St. Louis University in Missouri found that 97 percent of children under six in La Oroya have harmful levels of lead in their blood. Some also have high levels of cadmium, arsenic, mercury, antimony, caesium, and thallium. In addition, an epidemiological study conducted by the Health Ministry in 2004 and 2005 found that 50 percent of minors in the region of JunÃÂn have asthma.
It's 5:00 PM, and the bus is taking the children back to Old La Oroya, the neighbourhood next to the metallurgical complex. Babies and toddlers sleep in their mothers' arms as the older children show off their art work as they head home.
Dr. Hugo Villa at the social security hospital says "no programme will suffice unless the source of pollution is not addressed and the complex upgraded and modernised."
A report by the U.S. Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) stated that "without reduction of air emissions and remediation of soil, home hygiene and clean neighborhood campaigns are of little value in decreasing elevated" blood lead levels in La Oroya.
Such efforts would only be of some help after controlling "fugitive emissions" and building new smelters with state-of-the-art technology, the CDC's August 2005 report added.
The president of Doe Run Peru, Juan Carlos Huyhua, told IPS that the equipment used in producing lead and zinc has gradually been upgraded.
He also said that in a proposal presented to the Ministry of Energy and Mines in late 2004, the company put a high priority on community education and public health.
The proposal was an application for an extension of the January 2007 deadline for the implementation of environmental mitigation efforts to which the company committed itself in 1997.
Doe Run was granted an extension, until 2009, and was exempted from paying the fines to which it was subject for failing to meet the original deadline, in exchange for agreeing to additional clean-up measures.
One of the measures included in the environmental management plan is the construction of a plant to capture sulphur dioxide and convert it to sulphuric acid.
"The adoption of these measures by Doe Run is not a prevention measure, but is a result of the damages already caused," Roncal underlined.
- 183 Environment