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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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


May 12th, 2008
12:30 PM ET

Trying to get to Myanmar

By A. Chris Gajilan
CNN Senior Producer

Since last Monday, the Gupta team has been pushing hard to get into Myanmar. All the bags are packed and ready to go. Flashlights and headlamps – check. Water purification tablets – check. Malarone (an anti-malaria drug) and other meds – check. Camera batteries charged and ready to go – check. We’re on the balls of our feet, ready to spring forward, but we wait because the Myanmar government won't give us visas. As you probably know, we're not the only ones waiting.

ALT TEXT

I’ve talked to dozens of people from organizations including UNICEF, World Vision, USAID, Doctors without Borders and the International Crisis Group. For all, this humanitarian crisis has been unique. So far, about half a million people have been reached with some sort of aid – whether that's a bag of rice or a sanitation kit. But more than 2 million people have been affected and are in need of assistance according to Joe Lowry of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Part of the problem is that the country has allowed only a trickle of humanitarian aid experts into the country. In some cases, they have allowed deliveries of goods but not the personnel normally sent to help distribute them effectively. One expert put it this way: "It’s like dropping a off a bunch of instruments and somehow expecting a symphony to be played without any training or organization."

Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta since the 1980s. Its leadership is not fully recognized by many nations including the United States government. In case you’ve been wondering, that's why some people, including the U.S. government, refer to the country as Burma – its official name before the military junta rule.

Now, it's been more than a week since Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar (by the way, these powerful tropical storms are called hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere and cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere). The few humanitarian experts on the ground say the situation is worsening by the day. We've heard preliminary reports of outbreaks of diarrheal disease, cholera and malaria. Without a doubt, it's a humanitarian crisis that’s hard to imagine in scope and scale, especially given the limited reporting from the country. So far, the United Nations estimates the death toll from Cyclone Nargis ranges from 63,000 to 100,000 with tens of thousands of people still missing. That’s staggering – especially compared with two other tragic disasters we've covered: the 2004 tsunami left 181,000 dead and Hurricane Katrina killed 1,836 in 2005. Even as a journalist who has seen these catastrophes – it's hard to wrap my head around such large numbers of people killed, affected or injured.

Crisis experts say the timeline for outbreaks is generally 10 days after a disaster. Tomorrow will be the tenth day. The Red Cross points out there is standing water everywhere and no sanitation to speak of – it's a combination that will lead to inevitable disease.

We're still working hard to get into the country. Have you been following news coverage on Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis? If and when we do report from Myanmar, what are you interested in seeing?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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About this blog

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.

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