Peru: Authorities neglect Indigenous Peoples exposed to contaminated water

The Peruvian government is neglecting the health of hundreds of Indigenous people whose only sources of water are contaminated by toxic metals and who lack access to adequate health care, Amnesty International said in a new investigation published today.

A Toxic State reveals how the Peruvian government has failed to provide adequate healthcare for Indigenous communities in Cuninico and Espinar, in the country’s Amazonian and Andean regions, respectively. Studies found that their only sources of fresh water were contaminated with toxic metals harmful to human health.

“For decades, Indigenous Peoples across Peru have been treated like second class citizens,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International.

For decades, Indigenous Peoples across Peru have been treated like second class citizens
Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International

“The fact that the Peruvian authorities choose to do very little in the face of evidence that hundreds of Indigenous people have been exposed to toxic metals is not only cruel, but a violation of their right to health.”

Community members in Cuninico, in the country’s Amazonian region, told Amnesty International that in 2014 the river water and the fish, on which the community depend, started to taste strange.

Community of Cuninico Community of Cuninico
Community of Cuninico Daniel Martínez/Amnesty International

Women interviewed by Amnesty International say they are experiencing stomach cramps, burning when urinating, allergies, skin rashes and miscarriages. They say their children suffer many similar symptoms and are not able to concentrate at school.

A 2014 study by DIRESA (Peru’s Regional Health Authority) revealed that the levels of aluminum and total petroleum hydrocarbons in the water in Cuninico exceeded those allowed for human consumption. The results of another analysis of the water in 2017 have not yet been made public.

In 2016, a study by Peru’s Ministry of Health revealed that more than half of people in the community had abnormal levels of mercury in their blood. Alarming levels of cadmium and lead were also detected in people, including children. According to the World Health Organization, exposure to mercury and lead can cause extremely serious health problems and irreversible damage to foetal development.

The fact that the Peruvian authorities choose to do very little in the face of evidence that hundreds of Indigenous people have been exposed to toxic metals is not only cruel, but a violation of their right to health
Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International

Conny Llerena Trujillo, a woman from Cuninico, said that her three-month-old baby, who was born in 2014, began suffering from hives after she first bathed him in the river. Medical tests confirmed he had lead in his blood, as did 65% of those tested for lead exposure in Cuninico.

Conny Llerena and her family Conny Llerena and her family
Conny Llerena and her family Kat Goycochea/Amnesty International

The State’s response has been utterly inadequate. Despite the fact that the government declared a public health emergency in the area in 2017, no real steps have yet been taken to provide health care to the communities and address the water contamination, including investigating the source of the contamination.  

People living in the area have now resorted to collecting rainwater for their household consumption and are forced to drink contaminated river water when rainwater is insufficient. The government has also failed to determine the causes of the contamination of the river.

The closest health centre to Cuninico is an hour and a half away by speedboat and does not have the specialists required to meet the needs of a local population exposed to toxic metals.

Marañon river in the community of Cuninico Marañon river in the community of Cuninico
Daniel Martínez/Amnesty International

In the province of Espinar, in the Andean region of the country, the situation is similarly concerning.

Studies conducted by the Peruvian authorities concluded that a number of entire communities in Espinar have been exposed to heavy metals and other chemical substances and that their only sources of water are contaminated.

Espinar from the air Espinar from the air
Community of Espinar. Diego Cárdenas/Amnesty International

Women living in these communities in Espinar complained of constant headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, burning eyes, as well as respiratory and renal problems.

Carmen Catalina Chambi Surco told Amnesty International that four out of her six children are ill. One of them was born with a blocked ear and one had a cyst removed from his lung. Carmen suffers from chronic pain in her lungs, has lost hearing in one ear and has been operated on for liver stones.

A 2010 study by the National Centre for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health found that nearly all the community members who were tested had either lead, cadmium, mercury or arsenic in their blood. Prolonged exposure to these toxic metals is known to cause a variety of chronic health problems including memory loss, infertility, vision loss, diabetes, liver disease, kidney failure and cancer.

Carmen Catalina Chambi show some polluted water from her community Carmen Catalina Chambi show some polluted water from her community
Carmen Catalina Chambi show some polluted water from her community. Nataniel Furgang/Amnesty International

The Peruvian state has utterly failed in its duty to protect the communities in Espinar and guarantee their right to health.

“Instead of turning a blind to the desperate plight of Indigenous Peoples, the Peruvian authorities are putting their health and lives at risk. Authorities must ensure that people in Cuninico and Espinar have access to clean water and that the causes of the contamination are established and tackled,” said Salil Shetty.

Authorities must ensure that people in Cuninico and Espinar have access to clean water and that the causes of the contamination are established and tackled
Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International

Community of Cuninico

Health effects of the population

26

months since the authorities found that the water in Cuninico is contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances, but the community still does not have access to safe and clean water

129

Number of people from the communities of Cuninico and San Pedro tested for lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury in 2016 by the government. All those tested were confirmed to be exposed to at least one of these toxic substances

0

Number of operational health centres in Cuninico. The closest health centre is an hour and a half away by speedboat

Community of Espinar

Health effects of the population

41 out of 58

Water sources contaminated by heavy metals or other chemical substances beyond the limits for safe human consumption

7

Types of heavy metals or other chemicals toxic to human health identified in the communities’ water sources

Health Problems in the communities of Cuninico and Espinar

Health problems in adults

Migraines, muscle cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, skin lesions and rashes, hypertension, anaemia, infertility, miscarriages, premature birth, memory loss, insomnia, motor impairment, vision loss, diabetes, liver disease, kidney failure, cancer

Health problems with a particularly serious effect on children

Vomiting and diarrhea, anaemia, cognitive impairment, reduced IQ, learning difficulties, behavioral disorders,memory loss, kidney and lung damage, convulsions and comas