Dozens of people including 50 children poisoned from chemical leak in ‘Chilean Chernobyl’ region

People showed signs of sulphur dioxide poisoning including headaches and nausea

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Thursday 09 June 2022 14:01 BST
The town of Puchuncavi, Chile which experienced a sulphur dioxide leak from a copper refinery on Monday
The town of Puchuncavi, Chile which experienced a sulphur dioxide leak from a copper refinery on Monday (AFP via Getty Images)
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A case of suspected sulphur dioxide poisoning has been reported in two towns in central Chile this week, including 50 schoolchildren.

Twelve children and four adults in the town of Quintero were reportedly sent to the hospital, according to a statement from the local government. There are no reports of any deaths.

The town of Puchuncaví was also affected, reports Reuters.

The source of the pollution is believed to be a nearby copper smelting and refining facility run by Codelco, a state-owned copper company.

A statement from the group on Wednesday said that production at their Ventanas facility stopped on Monday after excess levels of sulphur dioxide were recorded, and remains halted.

The town of Quintero reported that on Monday, children at a local school experienced symptoms like headaches, nausea and dizziness as an odd smell filled the air.

Sulphur dioxide is a colourless but smelly gas that can enter the environment through industrial processes like metal processing, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as things like burning fossil fuels and volcanoes.

The coastal region, north of Santiago, has experienced significant pollution over the years, Reuters reported. Greenpeace Chile refers to the Quintero-Puchuncaví area as the “Chilean Chernobyl”, due to years of air and water pollution.

Quintero Mayor Rubén Gutiérrez Cabrera is reported as saying that these communities have tolerated this for decades, but it needs to come to an end, via the town’s statement.

At a meeting to discuss the event, Chile’s Environment Minister said that it was not morally possible to continue exposing these communities to this kind of health risk.

Reuters reports that other industries in this area include oil and chemical production.

Codelco is the world’s largest copper producer, Reuters notes. Chile also produces more copper than any other country, and copper ore and refined copper are the country’s two largest exports.

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