Peru: New evidence confirms health crisis due to toxic metals in Espinar

Members of the Indigenous K’ana People’s communities in Espinar province have high levels of metals and toxic substances in their bodies and the Peruvian state is failing in its obligation to guarantee their right to health, said Amnesty International today in the new report, Failed state of health: Health emergency in Indigenous Peoples of Espinar, Peru.

“This scientific and independent evidence shows that the communities in Espinar are facing a health crisis that requires an urgent and robust response from the government. The authorities must act to guarantee the right to health of the population and prevent Espinar from continuing to be another example of the failed state of Peru’s health system,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The research was carried out in collaboration with the organization Derechos Humanos Sin Fronteras and environmental health expert Fernando Serrano, from Saint Louis University, Missouri, between 2018 and 2020, in 11 Indigenous communities located in the area affected by the Antapaccay Expansión Tintaya – Integración Coroccohuayco mining project, owned by the Anglo-Swiss transnational Glencore PLC.

The authorities must act to guarantee the right to health of the population and prevent Espinar from continuing to be another example of the failed state of Peru’s health system.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Working with experts from contracted laboratories, the research team collected blood and urine samples from 150 volunteers from the communities. Of these, 78% (117 people) had levels of metals and toxic substances higher than the reference values, which represents a risk to their health.

There is ample scientific evidence of the harm to health associated with exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and manganese. With the exception of manganese, which is a useful element in the human body in very small amounts, none of the other metals and toxic substances mentioned play an essential role in the functioning of the human body. On the contrary, lead, cadmium and mercury are toxic even at low levels in the body and arsenic, especially inorganic arsenic, is highly toxic. Of the people analysed:

  • More than 58% had elevated levels of arsenic in their bodies, which can cause nausea and vomiting, a decrease in the number of red and white blood cells, as well as abnormal heartbeat.
  • More than 29% had elevated levels of manganese in their bodies, which can be toxic and build up in the brain, bones, liver, kidneys, and pancreas.
  • More than 12% had elevated levels of cadmium in their bodies, which can lead to kidney disease, lung damage and brittle bones.
  • More than 4% had elevated levels of lead in their bodies, which can affect almost every organ and system in the body. The effects of lead include anaemia and high blood pressure; kidney damage, weakness in the fingers, wrists, and ankles; and high levels of lead can cause severe brain damage.
  • More than 3% had elevated levels of mercury in their bodies, which can be toxic to the nervous system, to the immune system for fighting infection, and to the digestive system, skin and lungs, kidneys, and eyes. Exposure to mercury, even in small amounts, can cause serious health problems.

The Amnesty International report documents other conditions that these communities are exposed to, such as a lack of drinking water, environmental pollution, and lack of access to an adequate standard of living. Exposure to metals and toxic substances has a greater impact on people and communities in a state of vulnerability and exclusion, who face threats to their physical, mental and social wellbeing and barriers to exercising their rights, such as the people of Espinar. Exposure to these substances together with their combined impact and build up over time increase the risks. All these factors, added to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, put the people of Espinar in a situation of extreme vulnerability and risk.

CONTEXT: COVID-19 IN PERU AND ESPINAR

“The authorities must show leadership and resolve the serious health crisis in Espinar and in particular ensure the implementation of the Emergency Strategy ordered by the courts in December 2020. People living with metals and toxic substances in their bodies cannot become normalized. This is a situation that must be resolved without delay and with guarantees that it will not be repeated,” said Marina Navarro, executive director of Amnesty International Peru, noting that Espinar is experiencing a double health crisis today, due to the pandemic and pollution.

As of 3 May  2021, the Ministry of Health (MINSA) had reported 1,814,127 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 62,375 deaths linked to the disease. As of 1 May 2021, the Canas Canchis Espinar Health Network of the Cusco Regional Health Directorate, had reported a total of 3,828 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic and 27 deaths linked to the disease between 25 April and 1 May 2021 in Espinar alone.

Meanwhile, MINSA has established that, by 2020, more than 31% of the population (10,162,380 people) of the entire country were at risk of exposure to heavy metals and other chemical substances, more than 20% (6,812,575 people) to metalloids such as arsenic and more than 6% (1,997,797 people) to hydrocarbons. For years, the Indigenous communities of Espinar have complained about disease, environmental pollution and metals and toxic substances among the population and the lack of adequate environmental monitoring, safe clean water and specialized medical care. However, so far, the response of the Peruvian authorities has been slow and inadequate. 

Gerson López, a 22-year-old merchant from the Alto Huancané community says he has suffered from nausea, vomiting and frequent cramps in his hands and feet and that his family has suffered from rare diseases that doctors have not been able to explain. “We are dying, we are losing our families, we are losing our livestock,” says Gerson. “The government has not helped us at all. It has forgotten about us… We are asking for health and respect for the environment. I want to make the most of my life because I only have one life”.

The authorities must show leadership and resolve the serious health crisis in Espinar and in particular ensure the implementation of the Emergency Strategy ordered by the courts in December 2020

Marina Navarro, executive director of Amnesty International Peru

The failure to monitor the health of victims and to identify and treat health risks over the long term has denied the population of a significant aspect of their right to health: to not be exposed to metals and toxic substances and to know what long-term health problems such exposure can cause and how they can be treated. People also have a right to know the cause of the contamination, how metals and toxic substances have entered their bodies and what the plan for mitigation and redress is to ensure that this does not happen again. 

On 30 December 2020, the Cusco Superior Court issued a final judgment, which is not subject to appeal, ordering MINSA to design and implement a Public Health Strategy for the Health Emergency in Espinar related to exposure to metals and toxic substances.

On 20 April 2021, Amnesty International sent the results of this research to the President of the Council of Ministers and MINSA, giving them a period of 10 days for their comments to be received so that they could be included, as appropriate, in the report before of its publication. To date, no response has been received.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Duncan Tucker (Amnesty International Americas): [email protected]

Cecilia Niezen (Amnesty International Peru):[email protected]