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October 15th, 2008
02:28 PM ET

Should we have to choose between health and livelihood?

By A. Chris Gajilan
CNN Medical Senior Producer

It’s been one of the toughest and most complex stories I’ve ever worked on: Smokestacks belching dark clouds of lead, arsenic, cadmium into the air; children live with more than four times the safe limit of lead pumping through their blood; people who believe they have lost loved ones to the toxic conditions of where they live.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews Leslie and Jack Warden in Herculaneum, MO

Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews Leslie and Jack Warden in Herculaneum, MO

Dr. Sanjay Gupta and I have been traveling for the upcoming documentary “Planet in Peril: Battle Lines.” We visited the small town of La Oroya, Peru a couple of times during the past year. This town nestled in the Andes mountains is home to the Doe Run Peru smelting complex, where metal-laden rock is brought for processing into raw materials such as lead, copper and zinc. It is a place where the air irritates the eyes, befouls the mouth, stings the nostrils and heavies the chest. In this town of 35,000 people, 99 percent of children living in and around La Oroya have blood lead levels that exceed acceptable limits, according to studies carried out by the director general of environmental health in Peru in 1999.

Consider this: People shouldn’t naturally have lead in their bodies. The upper safe limit set by the World Health Organization is 10 mg/dL. But even more recent findings from La Oroya show that the situation is still very grim. We were joined there by Fernando Serrano, a St. Louis University researcher, whose 2005 study found that children had an average blood lead level of 36.1 mg/dL to 32.4 mg/dL. That’s more than three times the safe limit!

Lead poisoning is insidious. Children who have high levels of lead in their bodies can appear healthy but may suffer long-term consequences such as developmental disorders, mood disorders and in some cases, retardation. The young are most at risk because their tissue is more susceptible to the toxicities of lead.

Doe Run Peru took over the smelter in La Oroya in 1997, after it had already been operating for decades under other companies. We interviewed Doe Run Peru's president, Juan Carlos Huayhua. While his company is making major technological improvements and sponsoring community health programs, it recognizes that more needs to be done. In cooperation with the Peruvian government, Doe Run Peru runs a small nursery school for about 100 children whose blood lead levels exceeded 40 mg/dL. There are thousands of kids who live within a two-mile radius of the smelter.

Yesterday, we visited a sister company, Doe Run Missouri in Herculaneum, where lead is also processed. In that small town, the company agreed to a plan to help clean up the area, including a buyout of about 160 homes, in the area about 3/8 mile from the smelter.

In both towns the battle lines are drawn. We have found that the environmental conditions have improved in recent years. While the company and some residents and workers say they are doing all they can, others say it's far from enough.

Do you have loved ones who work in difficult environmental conditions? Have you ever had to make a choice between health and livelihood?

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soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. S Callahan

    Actually, this past summer I left a job on medical leave for enviromental reasons. This job was situated in a building that was renovated but maintained mold behind it's walls. I personally suffered a prior medical condition that was severely aggrevated by this enviroment. The enviroment was not only toxic to me but to many of my co workers, several who developed cancers, tumors, rashes, breathing issues in just a nine year range. At least two co workers are now deceased. This is a state rented office building, with the state aware of the conditions through documentation, yet the state fails to put the health and safety of it's workers as a priority and is actually punitive to those who complain. Go figure.

    October 16, 2008 at 13:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. kc

    Why don't we start in our own country???? I live in Cheyenne wyoming and we have to live with the disgusting oil refinery fumes everyday. No one seems to care because "it brings in money" to the city. I have filed complaints with the EPA which have been ignored- i suffer from sore throats and headaches on days that the wind is blowing the fumes towards my home. i know it is from the refinery becasue i moved here from nebraska and never had these problems before. So why don't we start cleanign up the filth that we have to live with in OUR country before we worry about others......

    October 16, 2008 at 22:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lauren

    I live in noithern Appalachia, where coal and steel rules. Many years ago my best friend, whose husband worked in a steel mill, gave birth to a preemie and the doctors told her that the nothern Ohio valley had the worst statistics for lung problems, in all the country. Things haven't changed much even though most mines and mills are closed, so I'm sort of deducing that by the time one sees the battle lines drawn, that the people's health is already permanently lost. Most people around here would give their eye tooth for a livelihood that pays decent wages and health benfits, well, the irony is, that coal and steel takes more than that out of where it is. Yes the job pays well for a very few, but destroys the health of everybody else in the area. Doesn't sound nice, but people will still pick livelihood over health when there's their kids' mouths to feed, even if it mean destroying the health of somebody else's kid.

    October 16, 2008 at 23:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Anne Liebenthal

    I lived in La Oroya for a month in 1982, as a misionary. I was told that the lack of vegitation in the surrounding area was due to the air pollution, which was very thick. The water in the river could not support any life at all. Now I understand more completely why the adults there were incapable of memorizing a simple four step sequence, despite very obvious enthusiasm and motivation to do so. I was told that poor nutrition was probably the reason for the mental retardation in virtually all of the adults who'd spent their entire lives there. At that time La Oroya living conditons were the worst I ever had at that point in my life or ever since have witnessed. I can only wonder how high the lead levels of the blood of those who were living in that place would be if dysentary hadn't interefered with toxant as well as nutrient absorption.

    December 2, 2008 at 18:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. dspitzer

    I would like to donate to the Casaraca School in La Oroya, Peru. I am dismayed that an American based company would continue the poisoning of children. Can anyone give me an address?? Please post.
    Thanks.

    December 8, 2008 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Miguel Vasquez, MD

    I am very impressed by this report, specially of Dr. Gupta and team effort to go to a very rough place such as La Oroya (high altitude, not the best accomodations, pollution, etc). I lived there until I was 11, and I have visited it periodically thru the years, and witnessed the effects of Lead Poisoning on the population, however it is only one of the toxic effects of the pollution created by the below standards mining facility there. additionally there is higher Incidence of respiratory ailments (silicosis, pulmonary tuberculosis, plane pneumonias), allergies, and possibly malignancies. I am hopeful that your report will encourage authorities to enforce the rules already existent in this matter. Thank you on behalf of the people of the Andes of Peru.

    December 13, 2008 at 04:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. wwelvaert

    I have been living in Cusco, Peru for over a year now. In my observations environmental protections here in Peru are generally considered less important than economic development, perhaps not surprising considering the poverty you still see here.

    The government in Lima seems out-of-touch with the people in the provinces and life in the remote Andes or Amazon jungle areas of Peru is nothing like life in the wealthier districts of Lima.

    I am seeing some local opposition to the environmental impact of the mining industry in Peru. Hopefully CNN's feature of La Oroya will help change the social and economic conditions that have allowed the La Oroya case to continue for this long.

    Ward
    Cusco, Peru

    December 14, 2008 at 15:38 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.