ST. LOUIS - Science meets mission for Fernando Serrano, Ph.D., an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health, who continues his crusade to protect the health of children who live 1,600 miles away, in La Oroya, Peru.
A 2008 CNN documentary called the small mining village of 33,000 one of the 10 most polluted places on the planet, contaminated by the emissions of Doe Run Peru, a metal smelter that had been La Oroya's largest employer.
Like St. Louis-based Doe Run Resources Corporation, the Doe Run Peru smelter was owned by The Renco Group. Amid financial problems, it closed in 2009, without making all environmental improvements required by the government. Earlier this spring, creditors rejected a financial restructuring plan from Doe Run Peru that would have allowed it to resume production. Now under the leadership of Right Business, the company hired to oversee liquidation of the complex, the plant started operating the zinc processing portion of its business, and is expected to resume full operations -- reopening its lead and copper circuits -- in the near future.
It won't be business as usual for the metallurgical complex, if Serrano has anything to do with it.
"Saint Louis University and the Catholic church in Peru have been the voice of protecting the environment and protecting people's health in La Oroya. Whoever operates the smelter and refineries should do it without putting communities and their environments at risk," Serrano said.
"If the company reopens without environmental protections, it will recontaminate the town and the levels of lead in the bodies of children will go way up again. We know from a medical perspective that is extremely dangerous. As a public health researcher and social justice advocate, I want to see action taken to clean up, remediate and prevent exposure again."
Before Serrano began studying how the Doe Run Peru smelter affected the health of the residents of the poor Andean village, the impact of the plant's operation was largely ignored by the government of Peru. Doe Run Peru belched a cloud of toxic chemicals into the air -- with no consequence.
That changed seven years ago. At the request of Monsignor Pedro Barreto, S.J., a priest and archbishop of Huancayo (where La Oroya is located), Serrano, fellow faculty and a graduate student from the School of Public Health, and other volunteers started researching the impact of the smelter on the health of children. To measure the effect of the smelter on public health, they went door-to-door, taking blood samples from area residents.
"In 2005, we did a study that changed the course of events. What was not an issue for even Peru became a global issue," Serrano said. "We found elevated levels of toxic metals -- lead, arsenic and cadmium -- in nearly all children we tested. Those levels would not have been tolerated in the United States."
And, once publicized, they could not be tolerated in Peru. The government took action against Doe Run Peru, demanding that the company install equipment to clean up the environment and stop emitting pollutants.
Threats of Violence
High lead levels can affect every system in the human body, including the brain and nervous system, potentially robbing children of intelligence and the ability to think. Arsenic affects the respiratory system and skin, and cadmium takes a toll on the kidneys and bones. And all three of the elements can cause cancer.
Despite the health risks of the pollution, some residents of La Oroya whose livelihood was dependent on Doe Run Peru, tried to block the research and silence those who tried to take action based on the results.
"When we did our 2005 study, people believed to be associated with Doe Run Peru called us ‘vampires of Missouri,' seeking to suck the blood of children for profit. Two of my teams were attacked by these people when we started research activities," Serrano said.
"Our research partners, Monsignor Barreto and the local project director, have received death threats. The fear and intimidation will not stop us from speaking truth to those in power and will not break our commitment to continue providing scientific evidence that can make a positive difference in the lives of the people of La Oroya."
Serrano acknowledges that the people of La Oroya are in a nearly impossible position. Many work at the smelter and must choose between the health of their children or having their children starve because they can't afford to put food on the table.
"This is not just an economic issue. It's a human life issue that has to do with contamination that has affected this country for decades and health. It's about children, about families. It's about doing the right thing," Serrano said.
"We can't have a society where you have to choose between good health and a job. It's not a choice people should ever have to make."
An Unexpected Journey
Serrano couldn't have guessed where his initial research in La Oroya would take him. Born in Ecuador and educated by Jesuits, Serrano was fascinated by the interaction of people with the environment.
"I attended a Jesuit high school and the whole idea of service was a critical part of my education. I embraced it and was a community organizer before I became a researcher," he said.
When Monsignor Barreto first approached Serrano for help in 2004, he was working on his doctoral dissertation about the economics, politics and health implications of the lead industry in St. Louis. Ironically, like the children of La Oroya, the children of St. Louis had suffered from lead poisoning. Located near the lead mines of southeastern Missouri, St. Louis was one of the country's largest producers of lead paint.
"The economic importance of the lead industry to St. Louis was one of the reasons we didn't tackle lead prevention programs in St. Louis," Serrano said.
In 2005, he temporarily turned his attention from how lead affected the health of St. Louisans to study the impact of lead on the lives of residents of La Oroya and led SLU public health research in Peru. Since that visit, Serrano returned to Peru nearly a dozen times -- conducting follow up research; meeting with Peruvian doctors at a symposium he organized on health issues caused by the pollution; teaching local graduate students how to conduct health assessments and environmental studies; and partnering with the local archdiocese and community to fight the environmental assault on its health.
"It's important to build partnerships that help us gain knowledge and increase awareness of problems because communities are the key component of health promotion. They have to be the ones to take the information and use it to make better decisions," Serrano said.
"These are local problems that need to be solved with local resources. Saint Louis University assists and is a resource. But for change to take place, local communities have to be the main driver of decisions."
Serrano was interviewed in 2008 by CNN about his research in La Oroya. He testified as an expert witness before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2010, demonstrating that the health of residents of La Oroya was not being protected. And this year, at the invitation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services, he shared the results of his scientific research in testimony before the State Department and a Congressional subcommittee.
At the Congressional subcommittee hearing in July, Serrano urged U.S. legislators to hold Doe Run accountable for its actions.
"In the discussion of the economic, legal and political factors related to smelting operations in La Oroya, priority should be given to the health needs and rights of the people of La Oroya, especially those most vulnerable such as infants and young children, including the unborn, who might be exposed to lead in the womb," Serrano said.
What Lies Ahead
Serrano said that since the plant's closure, levels of metal in the blood of children have decreased to the lowest level researchers have seen during monitoring, but still are higher than they should be. Air pollution has decreased significantly. But that could change once the La Oroya smelter begins to process metals again.
"Will the zinc and lead circuits meet environmental standards once they become fully operational? Only environmental monitoring can tell. The problem is the government is still not able to independently monitor emissions in a timely and comprehensive manner," Serrano said.
"Our research team in Huancayo is going to do some air monitoring in La Oroya and biological sampling in a small group of residents to test for lead, cadmium, arsenic, antimony and mercury. We want to have some baseline data before the zinc, lead and copper circuits become fully operational."
Serrano noted that the soil in La Oroya and its surrounding area, which includes an agricultural region, likely is still contaminated because nothing has been done to clean it up. Follow-up research also is needed to test the levels of metals in the water.
"Who is responsible for the cleanup? That is the key question. As far as I know Doe Run Peru refuses to accept any responsibility or liability for environmental remediation due to contamination that occurred in the period 1997-2009, when it operated the smelter. Monsignor Barreto and many others have said that both Doe Run Peru and the government are responsible for remediation.
"Plenty of work lies ahead. The community knows Saint Louis University is not there as a consultant -- one day there, one day gone. We are there as a partner and will not abandon the people of La Oroya."