Hundreds fall sick as Peru’s most active volcano continues to spew toxic gases and ash

Moquegua’s regional Civil Defense Institute is maintaing a yellow alert, indicating that the Ubinas volcano in southwestern Peru could erupt.

Since the volcano began to emit acid-laden ash, smoke and toxic gases more than two months ago, hundreds of residents have complained of migraines, conjunctivitis and respiratory infections.

“The inhabitants of (San Pedro de Querapi), who came back after a year and a half-long exodus, breathe in the toxic gases 24 hours a day,” Moquegua Civil Defense Director José Fuentes Flores told daily Peru21. “This worries us immensely, especially for the children.”

Just over two years ago, on April 23, 2006, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in six towns located near the Ubinas when it erupted after 37 years of inactivity, shooting incandescent stones as far as 4 kilometers, or 2.49 miles, from its crater. Forty-five families from Querapi, located at the foot of the volcano, were relocated as a precaution to the farther outlying village of Anascapa, at a safer distance.

But the inhabitants of Querapi decided to return to their homes, despite the risks.

“In Anascapa we didn’t have our own piece of land. Hardship forced us to come back: our farmlands are here and now our animals can eat, even if it is ash-covered grass,” Aidé Castro González, a Querapi resident, told official state news agency Andina.

Floreshas warned that the water in the region — used for drinking, cooking and irrigation — could soon be contaminated if the volcano’s activity continues to increase. Acid-contaminated water and volcanic ash-coated grass caused many animals, including llamas and vicuñas, to die in 2006, depriving local farmers of an important source of income and nutrition.

Two months ago, women began reporting that both children and adults in the community were displaying aggressive behavior — a symptom they associated with the inhalation of smoke, toxic gases and ash emitted by the Ubinas, as well drinking contaminated water.

The Moquegua National Food Assistance Program, or Pronaa, has been distributing food baskets of rice, flour, vegetable oil and sugar to residents after crops were destroyed by the gases and ash.

But for Pedro Valdez Nina, another Querapi resident, the permanent relocation of his town would be a more appropriate measure.

“The Pampas of Hawai, which are located in Moquegua, are an alternative for the people living near the Ubinas. We are willing to leave but we need land to live on and to continue farming. If not, how will we live?” Nina told agencia Andina.

According to Flores, the relocation proposal is being considered.

“The relocation of the 650 families affected by the Ubinas volcano is a process that will require many years and we are working to consolidate the project, but it is also necessary that the townspeople decide to move without any complications,” he said.

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