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Life in one of Chile’s industrialised ‘sacrifice’ zones

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Hundreds of people, including many children, have been exposed to toxic pollution in the Chilean cities of Quintero and Puchuncaví since early June. With widespread pollution from heavy industry and harmful cases of contamination in the past, the region is considered a “sacrifice zone” of the country. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a local teacher who condemned the growth of the industry “at the expense of the health” of residents.

At least 105 people, many of them children, sought treatment for poisoning between June 6 and 8 in Quintero and Puchuncaví, two towns about 100 kilometers from the Chilean capital Santiago. The victims showed symptoms such as dizziness, headache, difficulty breathing, tingling in the eyes, nausea and more – due to the peak levels of sulfur dioxide in the area on the morning of June 6.

Those affected by the pollution were treated at medical centers, while local schools were closed for several days. “For children, it was a double punishment: they were poisoned and no longer received an education,” he said Manuel Pizarro PerezQuintero resident and director of the NGO Red Infantia Chile (“Childhood Network Chile”).

Gas was visible at a factory near Quintero and Puchuncaví.

A week later, more poisonings were reported in Quintero. On June 15, the mayor reported that around 265 children had been hospitalized. A day later, the press reported a additional 20 cases

Past Cases of Pollution Poisoning

Such problems are becoming more common in the area, which is home to about 50,000 people. In 2018, more than 1,700 people developed symptoms of poisoning. In 2011, about 30 children became ill.

Residents point to pollution from a local industrial park developed by the state in the 1950s. The park now contains coal-fired power stations, copper and oil refineries, and chemical plants. Green Peace even nicknamed the site the “Chilean Chernobyl”.

The area is one of Chile’s five “sacrifice zones” due to heavy industrialization and pollution.

Still, Chile’s environmental inspector said on June 8 that it was “not yet possible to determine the exact origin of the pollution peak on June 6.” However, authorities ordered eight local companies to take temporary measures to reduce pollution. None of these companies provided an explanation for the spike.

View of the industrial estate at Puchuncaví and Quintero (2022).
View of the industrial estate at Puchuncaví and Quintero (2022). © Gladys Olivares

Puerto Ventanas and Codelco, two industries in the region of Puchuncaví and Quintero (2022).
Puerto Ventanas and Codelco, two industries in the region of Puchuncaví and Quintero (2022). © Gladys Olivares

‘The students here have a lot of headaches, but they are used to it’

Gladys Olivares, 56 years old, is a teacher at La Greda School in Puchuncaví, where she has lived for the past 24 years.

On Monday, June 6, a dozen of my students started to feel sick in class. They had headaches, stomachaches and dizziness. I myself had a headache. I told the director, but the students were not taken to the emergency room, but they could only treat the most serious cases. In the end, the school was closed for three days.

In 2011, there had already been poisonings at the school. Children had felt ill and a colleague of mine passed out. As for me, my heart was beating so fast I thought it would stop and I wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore. The pollution problem in our area was first publicized. The school was closed for two or three months, then we had to have classes in shipping containers. After two or three years, the school reopened a few miles away. At the time, blood tests showed traces of contamination in the children’s bodies.

We haven’t gotten that much coal dust since the school moved, but it’s still there. In addition, the ground is dirty during the year, so when the students play, the dirt rises. That is problematic because it contains heavy metals and coal.

Students play on the fields of the La Greda school in Puchuncaví (2022).
Students play on the fields of the La Greda school in Puchuncaví (2022). © Gladys Olivares.

The students here have a lot of headaches, but they are used to it. They only talk about it when they feel really bad or throw up, for example. On the other hand, some of them have cognitive problems such as intellectual disability or learning difficulties. This has to do with the pollution.

As for adults, many suffer from high blood pressure. I do, plus I have kidney problems, chronic rhinitis, allergies, and I had to have an ovary and a tube removed because I had a lump. One of my colleagues died of cancer in December at age 54. When we did the analyzes in 2011, she had less heavy metals in her blood than I did. We have resigned, we know we will die of cancer. Here the industries make money at the expense of our health.

The view from the community of Chocota, in Puchuncaví, where Gladys Olivares lives (2022).
The view from the community of Chocota, in Puchuncaví, where Gladys Olivares lives (2022). © Gladys Olivares

The Campiche thermal power plant, one of the industrial plants in the area of ​​Puchuncaví and Quintero (2022).
The Campiche thermal power plant, one of the industrial plants in the area of ​​Puchuncaví and Quintero (2022). © Gladys Olivares

‘I am determined to make my students aware that they have the right to health and education, and that they can live in an unpolluted environment’

Moving is complicated because I have lived here for a long time. It took me years to get a house, and anyway, the heavy metals are already in my body. In addition, I am determined to make my students aware that they have the right to health and education, and that they can live in a non-polluted environment. I actually have a former law student advocating for that.

I have a feeling the industries will never close. On the other hand, at the school level, at the very least, we need to change the terrain in our field. And we should organize medical monitoring for the children.

"This is not a natural cloud," explains Gladys Olivares, who took this photo in Puchuncaví (June 16, 2022).
“This is not a natural cloud,” explains Gladys Olivares, who took this photo in Puchuncaví (June 16, 2022). © Gladys Olivares.

For years, residents and local authorities have complained about pollution in the area and the lack of government action to reduce it.

“Employees in the municipality of Quintero [are protesting] due to the latest pollution incidents.”

Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced on the evening of June 17 that the Ventanas factory, owned by the public company Codelco, would be phased out due to recurring pollution problems. The factory is one of the factories near Quintero and Puchuncaví.

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