Informal lime hydrate production threatens environment and human health in Cerro de Pasco region

Small-scale production of lime hydrate in Sacrafamilia, a small central highland town located near the silver mining city of Cerro de Pasco, is saturating the air with sulfur dioxide vapors, a major portion of the pollutant load contributing to acid rain and disease in the region, El Comercio reported Thursday.

Extracted by burning blue volcanic rocks found in the San Juan River in more than 150 home-made ovens, lime production is the income generator for approximately 70 percent of families in Sacrafamilia, local mayor Flemin Celis Marcelo told daily El Comercio.

Calcium hydroxide, traditionally called slaked lime, hydrated lime, or pickling lime, is used for everything from sewage treatment, dentistry and chemical depilatory creams, to the manufacture of brake pads. It is also used largely in the mining industry, and Sacrafamilia residents produce the lime for several mining corporations including Atachocha, Milpo, El Brocal, Huarón and Volcan.

But local residents aren’t taking any safety precautions, said the director of the local Environmental Health Unit, Valeria Altamirano.

And, the residents are using highly toxic residual carbon, also known as dross, as a combustible to produce the lime, said mining expert Luis Zevallos in comments to daily El Comercio.

We have no idea what the level of contamination is in Sacrafamilia, said Celis, who has repeatedly asked the Ministry of Energy and Mines to carry out environmental and health impact studies.

Sulfur dioxide is a colorless gas with a pungent odor that irritates the skin, tissues and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and throat and can result in breathing problems. Conjunctivitis and corneal burns can also result from the irritant effect.

Effects associated with longer-term exposure to sulfur dioxide vapors include respiratory illness, alterations in the lungs’ defenses and aggravation of existing cardiovascular disease.

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