Social Issues

Decades later, Chilean kids still suffering effects of Swedish mine waste

By Meritxell Freixas

Arica, Chile, Feb 28 (EFE).- Shortly after he was born, Alison Nateres’ now four-year-old son was diagnosed with a congenital defect that impairs cognitive and motor function.

In remarks to Efe, the migrant woman acknowledged that she was aware of the risks of living in Cerro Chuño, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of the northern Chilean port city of Arica where thousands of tons of toxic waste produced by a Swedish mining firm were dumped by a Chilean subcontractor nearly four decades ago.

“I knew there was lead, but circumstances brought me here: I’m Peruvian. I have nowhere to go. I don’t have family here. I’m alone,” Nateres told Efe.

Ten-year-old Alexis, the oldest son of Jeannette Atora, has to use a rescue inhaler due to severe asthma attacks, his mother told Efe. Tired of dealing with one health problem after another, she relocated with her family to a place far removed from the dump site.

Nicole Rojas said she and her partner arrived in the nearby Los Industriales neighborhood without being aware of the large quantities of lead and arsenic in the soil.

And even after finding out they paid little mind to that hazardous waste until the birth of their first son, German, who was diagnosed with autism at age three (he’s now five). His younger brother, now two, also is believed to have that same lifelong developmental disability.

“At the kindergarten near our house, there are several children already diagnosed with autism and others suspected” of having that same disorder, Rojas told Efe.

Also experiencing health issues is the older son of Regina, a woman whose family was one of the original residents of a social development project erected in Cerro Chuño in the mid-1990s. In remarks to Efe, she recalled being a young girl and hearing about polymetals that damaged the health of thousands of people.

Those medical problems can be traced back to the late 1980s, when toxic mining sludge containing high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead were shipped by Swedish mining company Boliden from its Ronnskar smelter to Arica under a deal with Chilean mining company Promel.

A Chilean law passed in 2012 marked a first step in providing health and educational support to affected families in Arica, as well as funding for relocating them to safer areas. But hundreds of children born after 2012 who suffer from illnesses associated with high exposure to metals were not covered by the legislation.

Alison, Jeannette, Nicole and Regina are among a group of around 150 mothers who make up the Mamitas del Plomo (Mothers of Lead) Foundation, an organization created to raise awareness about the plight of their children and demand that their youngest ones receive the same medical benefits under the 2012 law.

“We started having tests done on our young kids, and the results revealed that all of our children who were excluded from the law suffered contamination to different degrees,” Luz Ramirez, the organization’s founder and the mother of Mauricio, a 13-year-old boy who has respiratory ailments and severe intestinal problems.

Gloria Flores, a resident of Los Industriales who has one son covered by the law and two others who are not, said she had tests done independently on her younger children and found that one of them had inorganic arsenic exposure of 50 micrograms per liter (when a level below 35 is considered normal).

“When I learned the result, I got worried and felt really powerless because my younger son isn’t protected by the law. No one monitors him, whereas they do keep track of my oldest son, give him a multi-vitamin and send him to a nutritionist,” she told Efe.

Luis Rocafull, a former Socialist Party lawmaker who was the top elected official in the Arica y Parinacota Region when the Polymetals Law was passed, said that 2012 legislation has been woefully insufficient.

He said that in addition to the blind spot for children born after 2012, a remediation program was launched without proper protocols and buildings were erected in an area contaminated with toxic dust.

But despite the efforts of the Mamitas del Plomo, no strides have been made in Congress to modify the law.

In June 2022, Chilean President Gabriel Boric visited the area, listened to the mothers’ demands and received a letter from one young girl stricken with health problems.

“I’m also contaminated and I want you to help the Mamitas del Plomo because I want more fair (access to) health care for all of the children of Arica,” seven-year-old Amaya wrote.

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