The death of the mayor of Choropampa, Vicente Zarate Minchán, has triggered widespread panic in the town in the Cajamarca highlands, eight years after the June 2, 2000 mercury spill that contaminated Choropampa and two neighboring towns.
Zarate, 34, died of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.
The first symptoms of this rare disorder, which usually occurs one to two weeks after a mild viral infection such as a sore throat, bronchitis, or flu, or after vaccination or surgical procedure, includes varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs.
These symptoms, for Choropampa residents, are frightenly similar to those experienced by patients suffering from mercury poisoning.
According to Juana Martínez Sáenz, President of Choropampa’s Defense Front, 90 percent of residents have similar symptoms.
“(Zarate) is not the only person who has died,” said Martínez. “Ten other people have already died.”
In June 2000, a flatbed truck owned by the Romero Group’s transport company RANSA, under contract to Yanacocha, South America’s largest gold mine, spilled 151.5 kg, or 334 pounds, of elemental liquid mercury over a 45 kilometer, or 27 mile, stretch of highway passing through Choropampa and two neighboring towns. The mercury leaked out of improperly sealed containers.
People gathered the toxic metal — many with their bare hands — believing that it was a precious metal from the nearby Yanacocha gold mine or a medicinal elixir. Many stored it in their poorly ventilated, small homes. According to the Peruvian government, more than 900 people were poisoned and many severly burned.
Yanacocha, owned by Colorado-based Newmont, and Lima-based Compañía de Minas Buenaventura, claims it paid out $14 million in medical treatment, clean-up and public works projects, paying between 2,000 to 21,000 soles ($570-$6,000) in compensation to individuals whose health was affected by the spill.
Newmont is still involved in an ongoing conflict over the damages resulting from the mercury contamination.
Mercury affects the nervous system and can cause nausea, vomiting, breathing problems, kidney and skin damage, as well as sensations such as “pins and needles” and numbness, usually in the hands, feet and sometimes around the mouth. If mercury is inhaled, 80% of the poison remains in the body.
According to Zarate’s family, the mayor, just like many other townspeople, suffered from fainting and vomiting spells, and frequent numbness in his extremities. But the mayor’s arms and legs only became paralysed last week.
Zarate was quickly transferred from Choropampa’s rural health clinic to Cajamarca’s regional hospital and, a day later, to Chiclayo’s Almanzor Aguinaga Hospital, where he died.
According to Dr. Edgar Atalaya Merino, the preliminary autopsy has revealed the cause of death to be a cerebral hematoma caused by the Guillain-Barré syndrome.
It may be that the mercury spill caused or contributed to the mayor’s death, Atalaya added, but such an affirmation must be corroborated by further specialized analysis.
According to the Neurology Channel, the exact cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is still unknown. However, in about half of all cases, the onset of the syndrome follows a viral or bacterial infection, such as campylobacteriosis (from eating undercookedf poultry), the flu, a gastrointestinal viral infection, HIV, or infectious mononucleosis.
No cause-effect relation has been established by the medical world between exposure to mercury and the Guillain-Barré syndrome.