In 2009, they sampled water, soil and blood in two Achuar villages near oil fields that have operated for four decades, first under Peru’s state-run company and more recently under Pluspetrol. A Kichwa village on a tributary with no wells upstream served as an unexposed population for comparison.
The researchers expected to find higher blood lead levels in the communities near the oil operations and no notable levels in the other village. To their surprise, they found the lead levels were similar. Water and soil samples also showed no significant amounts of lead, indicating that people were not ingesting it from the environment.
Indigenous leaders questioned the accuracy of the analysis.
At first, Anticona said, “We had doubts, too.”
Looking beyond the oil wells, however, she found a clue in a study from Micronesia of lead in villagers who melted batteries to make fishing weights. Anticona returned to Peru with a redesigned study that included observing everyday activities in households where people had some of the highest blood lead levels.
It took her several months to convince indigenous leaders and local health authorities that even if the oil operations were not to blame, further study was needed to solve the public health problem.
Anticona expanded the study to six communities, including the original three, and enlisted the help of Michael Weitzman, an expert on lead exposure from New York University, who was doing unrelated work in the Peruvian Amazon at the time. In a remote, roadless area without electricity, Anticona needed generators and portable refrigerators to keep samples cold, and spent hours hiking through jungle to sample cassava and other crops in families’ fields.
In focus groups, residents described plomito, which are strips of lead that they broke apart for sinkers, often biting the pieces to shape them and sometimes heating them over an indoor fire, releasing – and inhaling – lead vapor.
She learned that people scavenged pieces of electrical cable from oil camp waste dumps, stripped the lead sheathing, sold the copper cable for scrap and stored the lead at home to make weights. Blood lead levels were higher in communities closer to the camps, where scrap lead was more readily available.
Overall, less than 22 percent of children in the villages had blood lead levels under 5 micrograms per deciliter, which is the health guideline set last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 27 percent had levels at least double that amount.
Kids under 6 who played with scrap lead had an increased risk of high levels. So did youngsters between ages 7 and 17 who fished at least three times a week and chewed lead to fashion sinkers.
Results greeted with hostility
When people saw where Anticona’s research was heading, they became reluctant to provide information and some indigenous leaders became hostile.
“No one likes to be told that they’re doing something untoward to themselves and their children,” Weitzman said.
Instead, they wanted to blame the oil companies.
“It didn’t favor us,” Andrés Sandi, president of the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River said of the study. In a telephone interview, he called it a waste of money from a health program established after protests in 2006, when Achuar people near the oil fields shut down the company’s operations to exert pressure for a pollution cleanup.
San Sebastián said the study results do not undermine arguments about pollution.
“We have tried to clarify that there are two types of problems,” he said. “One is the lead, and the other is the possible health effects of the environmental contamination.”