Arsenic poisons the wells and the people in Peru

by @mbloudoff June 13, 2015 5:00AM ET

Tale of small town reflects larger crisis in Latin America, with 14 million exposed to unsafe drinking water

Public Health
Race & Ethnicity
Huanucollo Elementary students at a stream near the school. Out of 151 water samples recently taken by the World Health Organization throughout Peru, more than 75 percent exceeded the recommended limit for arsenic. In Carancas, where the school is located, the arsenic level was nearly 50 times the limit.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

DESAGUADERO, PeruIn the middle of September in 2007, a meteorite saved the people of Carancas, Peru. 

When a chunk of space rock bested the atmosphere and tumbled earthward, it terrified Peruvian locals with its violent entrance of flame and smoke. At 13,000 feet, the alien mass could go no farther, and it struck the southern town of Carancas, burrowing deep into Andean soil. The impact crater, big enough to hold a school bus, burped gas and stone fragments at nearby houses before quickly filling with water. 

Soon after the meteor hit, locals began showing up at the community health clinic, complaining of mysterious illnesses. Local doctors, unable to determine the causes, blamed the meteorite, and overnight, the sleepy town near the border with Bolivia became the subject of global media attention. Scientists swarmed the area to find an explanation. They interviewed residents, collected samples and studied the findings, hoping to discover microbes, electromagnetic forces or, at the very least, some foreign metals.

Huanucollo students during class.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

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.

Agustina Totora, left, and Neli de Laura wash potatoes as they prepare lunch in the school’s kitchen.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

Arsenic is so toxic that the World Health Organization says levels above 10 parts per billion in drinking water is dangerous. Ten parts per billion is tiny — the equivalent of 10 seconds in about 32 years. Yet anything more than that is enough to seriously affect health.

“If you consume even small dose of arsenic every day, your chances to get several types of cancer and other illnesses are increased,” said Dina Lopez, a hydrogeochemist at Ohio University. “It’s especially bad in the regions that are isolated, like in the countryside.”

Peru is hard hit by the arsenic issue, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) paper published last year. Out of 151 water samples taken throughout the country, more than 75 percent exceeded the recommended limit of arsenic. What’s even more frightening is that over half those samples had more than five times the limit. 

“There were some serious hot spots of arsenic in groundwater,” said Heather Williams, an assistant professor at Pomona College in California who studies water politics. “A lot of it was the most toxic form.”

The meteorite put Carancas on the map. Without this oddity, a 1 in 182 trillion chance, children at the school would have spent their most formative years pouring toxins into their little bodies, Bosiljevac said. 

It’s not just children who are affected, though young people are at an elevated risk because they’re still developing. Arsenic is hazardous because it mimics phosphorus, which is one of the six building blocks of life. Your body relies on phosphorus to store the energy you need to do simple things, like move an arm. When arsenic gets in your system, taking up the space once reserved for phosphorus, it can mess with your energy production and spur a host of nasty health consequences.

The negative health effects on humans are well documented, said Christine Marie George, an environmental epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Leave a problem like this unchecked, she added, and entire communities could fall victim to the mental and physical disabilities caused by arsenic.

Students at Huanucollo and their family members, photographed with double exposures in front of local water sources.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

From the road, Carancas’ elementary school looks like a mirage, as if the three-building complex still hasn’t quite decided whether its going to stick around under such harsh conditions. The Peruvian Andes are at high altitude, and the temperature swings wildly in the afternoons, forcing townspeople into an intimate relationship with their coats. 

But the inhospitable conditions don’t detract from beauty of the altiplano (“high plain”). The dirt road, pocked with holes, is flanked by miles of pale yellow grass. Glance northward and a ring of dark brown mountains sprouts out of the countryside, reaching toward the clouds with the vertical gradient of a pine tree. Skinny, mottled cows on tethers chew tiny circles into fields, and llamas decorate the landscape, their gangly necks juxtaposing with the sky.

Huanucollo student Cenaida Paredez Laura, 7, with some llamas during a visit from Engineers Without Borders USA members.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

The elementary school’s children don’t seem to notice the cold. And they’re too busy playing with llamas to register the scientists’ presence on their turf. Fear of contaminated water isn’t something they care to think about. But the director of the school, Soledad Huayhua Cama, is all too aware of the consequences of arsenic-polluted drinking water.

“It is a huge worry because there are children,” she said in Spanish. “The little ones run a risk of getting sick.”

Arsenic is a problem for populations worldwide. It has been found everywhere but Greenland and Antarctica — and that’s just because we haven’t looked, said Julia Barringer, an emeritus research geochemist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Arsenic comes from three main sources: mining, agriculture and volcanoes. Most of the time, the element is naturally occurring, making its way into the water table centuries after getting blown out of the earth. It all comes down to a geographic lottery. Some are luckier than others. The people of Carancas just happened to settle in an arsenic-rich area. 

In the U.S. testing a well for arsenic costs about $40, Bosiljevac said, which is the Peruvian equivalent of about 120 soles. When going out to dinner costs five soles, its easy to see that such tests are far out of the price range for the average citizen of Carancas. Peruvian officials are aware of the problem; they just aren’t doing much to fix it. 

“The municipality is not providing a penny,” said Ramiro Chavez Arestegui, the environmental health officer for the region, in Spanish. “Emphasis should be placed on … providing drinking water to the villagers.”

That’s where scientists step in. There’s no silver bullet for getting rid of the toxin, but even simple technology can have a big impact. Students belonging to Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) employ arsenic filtration devices using materials that are cheap and easy to find around Carancas. They’re called simple iron matrices (SIMs), and they’re essentially large covered buckets with lots of rusty nails inside. Arsenic is attracted to iron; let water sit overnight in a SIM and the arsenic will latch onto the rust. The water is then filtered through sand and gravel. The result is much lower in arsenic, though not very tasty.

Teams of students from the University of California, Berkeley chapter of EWB-USA visit Carancas about three times a year under the guidance of a licensed engineer to run tests on the SIMs and make adjustments.

A Huanucollo Elementary School teacher fills a cup from simple devices built by Engineers Without Borders USA members to pull arsenic from the water.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

Two freshmen from the University of California at Berkeley glance over at their sample of the elementary school’s treated water. It glows a bright alien orange, signifying the presence of arsenic — about 70 ppb, seven times as high as the WHO’s recommended maximum. In other words, the SIMs aren’t working properly. The students are still working out kinks that should have been solved before installation, like how much iron is required to pull out the arsenic or where to get additional supplies in town.

The EWB-USA UC Berkeley team members faced many problems during their latest trip — losing important schematics and failing to foresee simple problems. As outsiders, they have difficulty understanding the magnitude of the public health threat they’ve been sent to solve. It’s challenging to grasp how urgently these results are needed. 

Bosiljevac, the head of the UC Berkeley chapter, agrees. “We don’t have the cultural competency or sufficient language competency in conjunction with the appropriate time in the community to move [the SIM project] forward,” he said. The chapter has been trying to expand the program into houses and other schools so everyone can have clean drinking water. But the team has been struggling for years, and the student chapter is ready to hand off the project to someone else.

Project engineer Melissa Montgomery, far right, inspects the pipes of a rainwater catchment system.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

The Berkeley team has come up against an issue that many scientists parachuting into a foreign country seem to face: It’s not enough to understand the technology. In order to create effective solutions, you have to understand the culture.

It’s tough to implement a new technology, even a simple technology like the SIM, without knowing a community’s history. With the exception of the elementary school, many people in Peru have no idea their water could be contaminated with high levels of arsenic. A group of construction workers outside the local health post — an hour’s walk from the school — are quick to point out the site of the meteor crash but look puzzled when asked about the potential for arsenic in their drinking water.

“If it doesn’t kill you immediately, it’s difficult to make people believe that it will harm them in the long run,” Lopez said.

What’s worse is the lack of understanding for the town’s medical professionals. Even though UC Berkeley scientists have been visiting the area for years, only a handful of officials seemed familiar with the problem. The health director of the area, Adolfo Quispe, said he knew arsenic existed but didn’t know who was being affected.

“What was alarming to me was no one was aware that there could have been arsenic in their drinking water,” said George, who worked on the WHO paper on Peru’s arsenic problem.

It’s alarming, but it’s not surprising, according to Williams, who noted that Peru has a problem with race. Hundreds of years ago, the Spaniards conquered the country by defeating the Inca, who dominated much of western South America. Since then, there's been a history of discrimination against natives within the country, she said.

Engineers Without Borders USA members talk to Carancas residents about projects such as arsenic extraction devices and rainwater catchment tanks that they built and continue to monitor.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

This history also makes Peruvians unlikely to trust outsiders. There’s always a suspicion that scientists are there not for science but for gold or oil exploration, Bosilijevac said.

This legacy of distrust makes it difficult for any professional researchers to do their work, let alone student scientists visiting the country only briefly. In fact, the UC Berkeley chapter is shutting down its Carancas program, unable to expand it to other areas. 

“You see some of what’s going on — technical challenges, logistical challenges, organizational challenges, social and cultural challenges,” said Williams, who is not a part of the EWB-USA program. “I think we’re at a standstill on the arsenic thing, quite frankly.”

There are an unknown number of wells that could test positive for high levels of arsenic. There’s an untold number of people who could be exposed. The UC Berkeley team members are out in the field, getting their hands dirty, trying to make a difference. To the community, they’re heroes. And after they leave, someone has to step up and take their place. The region desperately needs scientists to check water for arsenic and teach people how to build SIMs.

Chavez Arestegui, the environmental health officer, said the villagers don't know how to clean the wells themselves. We need more scientists, he said, we need another meteor.