Cleaning Up La Oroya
Something's very wrong here," said Esther Hinostroza. "It's the children."
Hinostroza was calling from her Peruvian town of La Oroya, speaking with members of the Joining Hands Network of Peru. The group is composed of 15 Peruvian evangelical churches and Christian nonprofits and 19 Presbyterian congregations in Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio, who together seek to bring aid and development to Peru's poor. We welcomed Hinostroza's plea, but our organization was only two years old. The network wasn't prepared to take on an international corporation, whose factory, we would discover, was polluting the town, causing the children of La Oroya to become seriously ill.
Hinostroza is a women's leader in the evangelical church of Peru, as well as director of a small nonprofit group that focuses on maternal-child health issues in the city of La Oroya. She called the network in January 2002, begging members to see firsthand some of the children's health problems. The children complained of headaches, difficulty concentrating in school, and fatigue. Members of Joining Hands agreed to come see for themselves.
La Oroya is home to a large metal ore smelter, owned by the Doe Run Company of St. Louis. When members of Joining Hands arrived and traveled with Hinostroza to the village, they were shocked. The antiquated smelter emits more than 1,000 tons of toxic emissions each day. Employees say nothing about the pollution for fear of losing their jobs. Often, the city's children cannot play outdoors because of the smelter's emissions.
Pastors from the network met a seven-year-old boy named Javier; he complained of intense headaches, lethargy, and problems in school. His parents worried that the city's heavy metal contamination caused a growing curvature on his skull. Javier's experience served to focus the prayers and action of Joining Hands in the coming months. "Our children would be like Javier if we lived here," gasped one pastor after the initial visit in 2002.
Hinostroza and other Christians in La Oroya wanted to find out the extent of the city's pollution and the damage to their children's health. But they didn't have the money or know how to conduct a scientific study. Besides, it was far beyond the scope of what Hinostroza expected of her ministry. "We were accustomed to giving hungry people a fish in Christ's name and even teaching them to fish," said Hinostroza. "But we had never given thought to what Jesus would have done when the river which runs through their town is contaminated."
The Pharmacist, the Pastor, and the Archbishop
In order to fix the problems in La Oroya, Hinostroza would need the help of Christians outside those she normally dealt with. In July 2002, Joining Hands called upon Patty Nussle, a pharmacist in the poison control unit at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and an active member of a Joining Hands congregation. Nussle and a team from her church provided lead testing to more than 60 children.
While their sampling was not representative of the community, the test results were off the charts. "As the lab results were coming in that day in La Oroya," Nussle recalled, "I could see that almost every child was severely lead poisoned." Some children had more than six times the World Health Organization maximum permissible level, a severity of lead poisoning that in the United States requires immediate hospitalization. Before she left La Oroya, Nussle made sure Hinostroza and other mothers in La Oroya knew what even mild lead poisoning could do to children and expectant mothers: reduce a child's intelligence, stunt physical growth, cause behavior and learning problems, and increase the possibility of miscarriages and infertility. Nussle gave interviews to the press and presented her findings at the North American Congress of Clinical Toxicology the following year. The shocking data got U.S. health professionals and the media talking about La Oroya's children.