There is a place in the world where birds do not fly, where the trees and children do not grow, where lead is everyday's bread...

It is said that every child is born with a loaf of bread under his arm. Unfortunately, this old proverb does not apply in La Oroya, Peru, where five thousand children live with very high levels of lead in their blood. In La Oroya (a city in the Andes located 180 kilometers south east of Lima), lead, cadmium, sulfuric dioxide, and other toxic materials causing acid rain, are found in the bodies of the thirty- three thousand people who live there.

A yellowish smoke covers the sky of La Oroya. In March of 2007, a bus took us in front of the chimneys of the plant owned by DOE RUN CO., the biggest lead producer in North America. The panorama can't be more chilling: black and copper smoke with the smell of death come out of the smelter’s chimneys. Only 200 meters from the metallurgical facility, children play soccer carefreely, and with each breath swallow the toxic dust that travels in the air. The schools, the streets, the hospital, and the houses are covered with this metallic dust; the pine trees do not grow, and the flowers are scarce. The beauty that existed before is now ash-grey. La Oroya is the fifth most contaminated place in the world according to the Blacksmith Institute, a conservative organization based in New York City. Chernobyl, where occurred the worst nuclear accident of the history, is first on the list of the 10 most contaminated cities.

We can see a few people walking around with masks, and others using handkerchiefs. The majority use their hands to cover their nose and mouth, so that they won't inhale the sulfuric air."Before, it lasted only hours, now they emit those gases all day long", Julia Zolano tells us, a woman who owns a candy shop in the outskirts of the plant. The smelter spews out more than 800 tons of sulfuric dioxide daily in the atmosphere, exceeding five times the limits established by the peruvian laws.

It is impossible to walk in the narrow streets of La Oroya, because throat itchiness and eye irritation is unavoidable. We don't understand how people can live this way. Maribel Velarde, the person in charge of doing the first blood analysis on the children of La Oroya, tells us that , with time, one gets used to it; She shows us the results of the studies done by the Health Ministry on 788 children under 7 years old. The numbers are outrageous: 99.9 percent have lead in their system, an average of 41 micrograms per deciliter of blood, four times more than the hazard limit allowed by the World Health Organization. Small children and pregnant women are affected the most.

The frightening thing about lead contamination is that, initially, it doesn't show any visible signs, since its action is very slow. It is known that it affects the nervous system, causes agressiveness, fatigue, anemia, learning and growing deficiency, and, in high dose, can cause death.

Dengel is a nine year old boy, but because of his size and weight, he looks like a six year old. His brother’s history, Reiner, is no different : he is seven years old, hardly measures one meter and weighs 18 kilos. Their father, Melitón Rivera, tells us that his sons cough all the time, and that they suffer a lot from stomach pain. Melitón and his wife can not sleep when they think about their children’s future. « When the smoke comes, we close the windows and the door, because our eyes and throat itch. Nobody will remove the lead that is already in our body. What we’re looking for is compensation, and for them to relocate us ». Dengel runs to us, and with the freedom of children tells us : « Me and my friends want them to take the chimney down. It’s very ugly and the smoke is bad». The look in Reiner’s and Dengel’s eyes is somber. It is unusual for a child in La Oroya to smile, the lead took away their innocence and the joy of childhood. Reiner dreams of being a good doctor some day, so that he can cure his parents and his friends.

Since 1997, the year in which DOE RUN bought the metallurgical facility, the levels of lead poisoning have increased. DOE RUN is part of RENCO GROUP, whose main shareholder is the controversial multimillionaire Ira Rennert. His companies are facing more than a hundred lawsuits in the United States for causing air pollution and endangering public health. His magnesium production company in Utah declared bankruptcy after federal officials charged it of illegally handling hazardous waste. Rennert’s main company is a lead foundry in Herculaneum, Missouri, an enterprise accused of contaminating the population. Since the laws are more rigorous in United States, the company was forced to give a compensation and relocate 2800 persons who lived near the smelter. Unfortunately, in our country, things are very different, since there are laws on paper, but they are not enforced. The general corruption and the absence of civil awareness contribute to let those megaconsortiums do what they want. So much so that the ministry of Energy and Mines, in an unprecedented gesture, accepted for the ninth time DOE RUN’s request to extend until 2009 the fulfillment of its environmental operating agreement known by its Spanish acronym PAMA, a program that the company had promised to achieve when they acquired the metallurgical facility from CENTROMIN. Presently, DOE RUN doesn’t pay income taxes to the country, nor dividends to its 3000 and more employees working in the smelters. In view of all this, the social leader Miguel Curi gathered many families to appear before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to ask the company and the State for compensation. He says :«We don’t believe in DOE RUN anymore. When they came, they promised to reduce the emissions. I have been living in La Oroya for 22 years, but six years ago, when I found out that my son had lead in his blood, I learned about the irreversible damages it causes to one’s health. Last year, the company quintupled its profits, reaching 150 million dollars . In spite of all this, they do not want to build the two sulfuric acid plants which would reduce gas and metal emissions in the atmosphere by 85%.»

Curi must take his two children away from the city on weekends, so that they can get away from the fumes, but most people do not have the financial means to do the same. The rebellious leader from La Oroya is our guide, and he takes us to several homes where people have decided to break the silence, but those people who dare speak of the subject are labeled as « traitors » in the town. DOE RUN is the main source of income in La Oroya : 80% of its residents make a living directly or indirectly from the smelter, and the company always threatens to leave if the denunciations continue.

The environmental delegates are a group of seventy housewives chosen by the company to carry out cleansing campaigns on the streets and in households. They are DOE RUN’s most effective eyes and ears . When they find out about our presence, one of them approaches us on the street, and asks the reasons for our visit. Afterwards, she lowers her voice, and tells us that the company gives toys to their sons and Barbie dolls to their daughters at Christmas, that they built a public dining-room and showers, and that there is a day-care center in Casaracra (one of the neighbouring villages), where they teach and feed the children. When she realizes that we do not contradict her, the woman gives us a challenging look and leaves. Casaracra is a day-care center created after an agreement between the Health Ministry and DOE RUN, but provides care to 75 children only (the most serious cases), inadequate attention for the enormous children population intoxicated.

We climb up the steep stairs leading to Gloriapata and Picuypata. A few skinny dogs welcome us. Those are the most contaminated barrios in old La Oroya’s high zone. The houses are made of brick, have only one room, and the walls and windows are covered with soot. People do not have potable water or basic sanitation. Women have to wash their clothes on the street, in public sinks. None of them want their children to go outside because the grey dust is everywhere, and they can get it even in their mouth.

We visit the Ynga family. Two of their three children died from exposure to lead and other cancerigenic metals. Mercedes Ynga refuses to acknowledge that due to her testimony on a national channel, she received death threats from the ex-mayor Clemente Quincho. She, along with her husband and daughter, had to flee to Lima for two weeks, to protect their own lives. At our insistence, she finally accepts to talk to us. «My daughter died at 17, after suffering for 9 years, with 82 micrograms of arsenic in her system. She had spots on her skin, fever at night, and the doctors at the hospital Guillermo Almenara, bribed by the company, did not tell us what she had. My other son died when he was one year and three months old. He was born with cancer, a malignant brain tumor.» Mercedes’ voice falters, her hands begin to shake, and tears run down her pink cheeks. Her husband, Martin, a robust 40 years old man, takes her in his arms, and they both cry. Mercedes now goes from door to door to give advise to the women of La Oroya. She doesn’t want another mother to suffer what she suffered. «We are not afraid anymore, and little by little we bring awareness to the people», she says, as we are about to leave.

We cross the tortuous barrios of La Oroya,and the stories repeat themselves. La Oroya is a city covered by a dark veil, rarely can you see the sunshine . At night, you can not even see the stars. It looks like if a meteorite had passed and, on its way, had burned the trees, the birds, and the residents’ dream to breathe fresh air. The hillsides, where most of the city’s population live in a chaotic concentration, are charred. The life in the Mantaro and Yauli rivers has disappeared. Grandparents tell us that, formerly, there were vast pastures and green hills, and one could catch trouts in the rivers.

Agustin Mamani is a cheminal engineer who worked for DOE RUN during 30 years. He tells us that the smelter uses petroleum residues, scrap metal, and concentrated poison that other countries do not accept.

He also informs us that the case of La Oroya is no longer a local problem, but a national one. The water for domestic use contains lead, zinc, arsenic, and other contaminating materials, and so do the soil and the air. The artichokes, the corn, and various produce that leave the central zone to be sold in the main markets of the Capital are contaminated. We insist on the danger of the particulate material, because particles reach your lungs, and since they are so small that they can travel up to four days before they settle somewhere, the cloud of lead threatens to reach Lima.
After listening to these horrifying testimonies, we ask for a meeting with the Head of the environment department at DOE RUN, the engineer Jorge Miranda, who agrees to meet with us very early the following day.
At the agreed time, we wait for him in the hall of the building with thousands of questions in our heads. Many hours pass, and Miranda inexplicably doesn’t authorize our entry to the factory. After many calls to his cell phone, he finally answers, only to cancel the appointment, saying that he has lots of accumulated work. Therefore he invites us to a new meeting, but the scene repeats itself in the afternoon:his cell phone is turned off, and the secretary claims that she doesn’t know where he is. The Head of the environment department literally vanished.
Even if the mayor of La Oroya, César Gutiérrez, strongly promises us to oversee the execution of the environment plan, the future of the city is uncertain. Many people in authority have been seduced by the appealing smell of money, like Jesús Díaz, head of Essalud, who lives in DOE RUN’s workers’ houses.
«There are days when I think about leaving», Epson Núñez tells me. He’s the young father of Mirella, a one year old girl, who frequently has convulsions and mood changes. Her health condition worsens on days when gas emissions are more intense. « We want DOE RUN’s owners to think about the children of La Oroya. We fight for our children , so that they won’t suffer because of our inactions.»
It is distressful to see the profound disparity that exists in the world. While Rennert lives with his children in a mansion in Long Island twice the size of the White House, an entire town is slowly dying in the peruvian Andes.
It is urgent that DOE RUN reduces its production like it did at the Missouri plant. The State must develop an essential health plan that will declare La Oroya in a state of emergengy. It should not take two more years before they build the two sulfuric acid plants. Children do not understand legal matters nor petty interests, they only want to grow up and run freely, and feel the wind caress their faces. Let’s make this universal right possible, let’s raise our voices a thousand times , let’s not allow Dengel’s, Reiner’s, Mirella’s, and a whole new generation’s life and dreams to be «OF LEAD».

If you want to know more about the way you can collaborate to our awareness campaign, send us a message to : lassumasvoces@gmail.com

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