High concentrations of arsenic poisons residents in ‘Chilean Chernobyl’

QUINTERO – After the toxic cloud spread last week, investigations have led to two enterprises. Dangerous concentrations of arsenic and methyl chloroform were found around the areas of Quintero and Puchuncaví. Legal actions could be taken against the accused companies.

The environmental yellow alert, decreed by the government last week, has unleashed investigations to find out which toxic substances exactly have injured more than 300 people, and which companies are responsible for the disaster. Valparaíso’s regional health Seremi (a local branch of the national authority) reported that between 2010 and 2015, the annual average of arsenic concentration in the area exceeded 23 times the limits established in European REACH laws, which regulate such substances in the EU. As such a law does not exist in Chile, companies can use any amount of chemicals without breaking any law. Nonetheless, exposure to high concentrations of arsenic can cause cancer, which is already happening according to health reports from the affected community.

President Piñera explained the effects of the dangerous chemical during his visit to the area. He admitted that the wells were contaminated with high concentrations of arsenic, highlighting that it’s closely related with the high cancer rates in both communities. A report by the Seremi also revealed concentrations of arsenic in the air over the north coast, bringing the tragedy increasingly to a national scale, in what has been named by Greenpeace the ´Chilean Chernobyl´.

People drank arsenic-poisoned water

High concentrations of Arsenic around the whole coast (Twitter / Dunas de Ritoque)

Health Minister Emilio Santelices said that “we are aware of samples taken from water, which showed the presence of arsenic. That’s why President Piñera announced that the government will fortify the drinking water network, to avoid that people have to consume contaminated water, as the presence of arsenic is highly associated with cancer and cardiovascular diseases.”

The president of the Toxicology Society at Universidad de Valparaíso, María Fernanda Cavieres, highlighted that the community demands new laws for the use of arsenic in the area. According to Cavieres, a relevant law was proposed in 1994, but went nowhere. “It’s unbelievable that it’s been such a long time without any kind of regulation for arsenic. The effects of arsenic are severe for our community’s health, they are the ones suffering,” Cavieres added.

Methyl chloroform – illegal but still used

Quintero and Puchuncaví were also exposed to methyl chloroform, which was forbidden in 2015. Oxiquim S.A. is accused of having used methyl chloroform nevertheless sometime ago, but denies any wrongdoing.

Symptoms associated with exposure to the substance are depression of the central nerve system, affection of the myocardium, and the circulatory and breathing system. It can also lead to dizziness and nausea, symptoms widely observed among the more than 300 victims in the communities.

Oxiquim and the government

Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt is accused of neglecting her role as a protector of the environment. Opposition deputies Daniel Verdessi and Diego Ibañez said they will present an investigation request against the minister to find out about her presumed links with Oxiquim.

The coastline of Quintero with in the background Oxiquim

The deputies highlighted Schmidt’s links with Oxiquim president Fernando Barros, who worked with her husband for 17 years. They explained that the relation could have affected her impartiality regarding the company. Barros, in turn, is also the long-serving lawyer of President Piñera himself – and the Pinochets. Curiously, in the first days of the tragedy, and before independent investigations came about, the government didn’t mention the possible involvement of Oxiquim, but pointed to state oil company ENAP, which would have to pay potential damages with taxpayer money.

School’s suspended

In the Environment Ministry’s declaration the company was accused of inefficient chemicals management, which led to the release of toxic gases. In response, Quintero’s mayor Isaac Carrasco filed a protection resource with Chile’s Appeal Court against ENAP. This mechanism serves to protect the constitutional rights of an affected party. The document demands the court takes necessary measures to avoid more contamination.

The community demands the government to strengthen relevant regulations. Classes were suspended in the area for 48 hours. Students from the area have mobilized and even threatened violent protests if the government doesn’t fulfill their demands. At his visit, the vehicle of President Piñera was attacked by angry citizens, demanding justice after breathing for decades the toxic air of companies that seem to have cared more about money than about the health of the communities they pretend to serve.

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