Instead, they found dangerously high levels of arsenic unrelated to the meteor — much of it concentrated at the town’s elementary school. For the people of Carancas, the discovery of arsenic was a devastating blow but one that may have saved their lives.
“People are dying from arsenic poisoning,” said Faruque Parvez, an environmental health scientist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health who studies arsenic in Latin America. “These are the consequences for a community and an entire generation.”
An estimated 14 million people in Latin America are exposed to drinking water with unsafe levels of arsenic, making it the most widespread toxic chemical exposure in the region. Numerous studies tie the poison to a long and terrible list of serious illnesses like cancers, Type 2 diabetes, premature birth, infant mortality, heart disease, lung disease and cognitive and motor impairment for children. While an arrival from outer space alerted people to the dangers of arsenic, complications much closer to home mean they’re still not getting the help they need. The region’s poverty, corrupt officials and distrust of outsiders ensure the problem’s longevity.
News reports at the time suggested that the Carancas meteor aerosolized some arsenic-laden groundwater and that people breathing in the toxin suffered as a result. A one-time high-level exposure to arsenic could cause illness. But it’s more likely the meteor gave people the opportunity to come forward with problems they have been experiencing for years — problems caused by a lifetime of arsenic exposure, said Steven Bosiljevac, a civil engineer who has worked in Carancas.