ST. LOUIS -- Five years ago, Fernando Serrano, Ph.D., was writing his doctoral dissertation at Saint Louis University School of Public Health when he led a team of colleagues to La Oroya, Peru. The researchers studied high levels of metals in the bodies of residents who lived near Doe Run Peru, a metal smelter and refinery, in what Serrano describes as "one of the most contaminated cities in the world."
|On a June visit to Peru, Fernando Serrano, Ph.D., met with the Archdiocese of Huancayo’s Peru environmental assessment team. From top and clockwise to right are: Serrano, Daniel Alvarez, Abilia Larrauri and Paula Meza.|
The levels of metal in the bodies of residents puts them at risk of a potpourri of health problems that run the gamut from cancer to kidney failure, bone density loss, learning problems, memory loss, paralysis and death. These risks persist, Serrano believes, despite the closing of the metal plant two years ago. Serrano and other advocates in Peru want the Peruvian government or Doe Run Peru to take responsibility for the problem by cleaning up the environment and treating people for exposure to the toxic metals.
Fast forward to June. Accompanied by Michael Rozier, S.J., an instructor in the School of Public Health, Serrano returned to meet with Peruvian doctors at a symposium he organized; Pedro Barreto, S.J., the area's archbishop and a Jesuit priest; members of Red Uniendo Manos (Joining Hands Network), a Lutheran faith-based organization; and the Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (Peruvian Society for Environmental Law).
"After five years of study, the issue has not been resolved," Serrano said. "The partnerships are as relevant now as they were when we first began our work."
Rozier puts it another way.
"It's rare for an academic institution to have such a sustained commitment. That's what defines Saint Louis University. We're looking for a different type of engagement with the communities we work with," Rozier said.
"People coming from a university in the U.S. with scientific evidence have a stronger voice than people in a poor village. They can't leave and we're saying we're not leaving them, either. We're here until we see results."
Meetings will continue in November, when a group of 16 leaders from Peruvian academic institutions and community-based organizations visit Saint Louis University School of Public Health to learn how to put an environmental health initiative into practice.
"We will empower Peruvian leaders working on environmental health issues by giving them field experience of how public health is practiced in the United States," Serrano said.
"Our goal is to help Peruvian leaders put together programs that are more effective in protecting the health of people who live in La Oroya and central Peru."
Serrano feels a personal connection to the people of La Oroya as he gathers and shares scientific evidence on the effect of environmental pollution on health.
In March, he testified as an expert witness before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the health of people in La Oroya is not being protected. He presented laboratory results gathered in 2008 and 2009 that show levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic in the body are higher than acceptable and continue to present a serious health risk.
Since Serrano first began studying La Oroya, CNN profiled the community in its Planet in Peril documentary. For financial reasons, the Doe Run Peru plant closed in June 2009, creating additional hardships on the community that is forced to choose between jobs and health. On July 28, the Peruvian government cancelled Doe Run Peru's license to operate after the company failed to meet a financial deadline.
Doe Run Peru was notified formally by the Peru Ministry of Energy on Aug. 2 that it has not complied with the requirements set by the government to resume operations. The non-compliance statement opens the doors to other administrative and legal proceedings by other public agencies related to taxes, property of assets, debt responsibilities and environmental compliance.
Although the smelter is not belching fumes into the environment now, the risk of health problem for neighboring residents persists, Serrano argues. His most recent samples show that since the closing, levels of lead in the body have dropped, but not significantly. Arsenic levels have dropped significantly. But, cadmium levels have increased, which Serrano says is surprising.
"We expected everything to go down because the plant is closed and there are no emissions," he said. "But overall the risk persists. These metals stay in the body and in the environment."
That's why Saint Louis University continues to be involved, Serrano and Rozier say.
"Even though the plant is closed, the legacy of contamination is so grave people are still at risk of environmental exposure," Serrano said.
"Many think there is no risk because people aren't dying right now. I strongly reject that notion. With those levels of toxic metals in the body, there is a risk that people will develop illnesses. Evidence like this is needed to understand the impact of environmental contamination on people. We need to continue to talk about what to do for those who have been exposed and how to prevent future exposure."
Read about the CNN Planet in Peril special.
Learn about SLU's community research.