Toxic spill at copper mine sickens more than 100 people in Peru

By Carla Salazar / Associated Press

More than 100 rural Peruvians have been sickened by the spill of a toxic copper concentrate produced at one of the Andean country’s biggest mines, authorities said Friday.

The Ancash state regional health office said 140 people were treated for ‘‘irritative symptoms caused by the inhalation of toxins’’ after a pipeline carrying the concentrate under high pressure burst open in their community.

Most of the injured had joined in efforts to prevent liquid copper slurry from reaching a nearby river after the pipeline linking the Antamina copper mine to the coast ruptured last week in the village of Santa Rosa de Cajacay, said the community’s president, Hilario Moran.

‘‘Without taking into account the consequences, we pitched in to help,’’ Moran told The Associated Press by phone.

The people used absorbent fabric provided by the mine but were not given gloves or protective masks, said Antonio Mendoza, the mine’s environmental director. Shortly afterward, people became ill, vomiting, suffering headaches and nose bleeds.

‘‘That’s unethical and irresponsible and they should know better,’’ Greg Moller, a professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at the University of Idaho-Washington State University, said of the mining company’s enlisting villagers in the cleanup without proper protective gear.

Mendoza said the substance that spilled ‘‘was not necessarily toxic.’’

‘‘It’s a dangerous substance to the extent that it’s an industrial substance,’’ he said. ‘‘They are dangerous substances that require a particular handling but aren’t necessarily toxic.’’

Moller disputed that characterization.

‘‘This was actually a toxic episode and these people are intoxicated,’’ he said, adding that the alkaline copper concentrate likely damaged lung tissue, causing chemical burns.

He said it was his understanding that the rupture released a mist of concentrate, which could have created a fine cloud of toxic airborne particles.

‘‘There are a lot of chemical and physical irritants in that mix,’’ Moller said.

About 30 people were taken to the San Pablo hospital in the highlands regional capital of Huaraz immediately after the July 25 rupture, Moran said. ‘‘Some people continue to get sick and continue to go to Huaraz,’’ he added.

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