In 2006 and 2007 a US- based environmental health organisation, ranked La Oroya in the Peruvian Andes as one of the most polluted places in the world. People & Power visited the town and found locals are fighting back.
Rosa Amaro says her community are affected by a high level of contamination every day and that children are among the worst affected.
Amaro is the head of the Movement for the Health of La Oroya (Mosao), a group formed in 2002 with the aim of remedying the health hazards presented by a huge metal smelting complex that looms over the town in the Peruvian Andes mountains.
"Our children are very affected by the contamination," Amaro says. "We from La Oroya suffer a high level of contamination on a daily basis, and recently it has been worse, something the population should be aware of."
The smelter is owned by Doe Run-Peru, a subsidiary of a US holding company, Renco and vast quantities of metal ore arrive daily La Oroya where metals including silver, gold, lead and copper are separated emitting toxic particles in the process.
Doe Run bought the facility from the Peruvian government in 1997 and promised to reverse some of the environmental threats posed by the plant and its emissions of lead, cadmium and arsenic.
Vast quantities of metal ore arrive daily La Oroya where metals including silver, gold, lead and copper are separated emitting toxic particles in the process.
Indeed in 2007 more than 90 per cent of children in the town had levels of lead in their blood exceeding World Health Organisation standards according to figures from Peruvian health authorities.
Mercedes Inga's daughter died of skin cancer two years ago at the age of 14 and says her death was related to pollution, a death that prompted Inga to join Mosao.
"Because I was born here in La Oroya maybe my children were already contaminated like I am, contaminated and sick," she says.
Her daughter had been examined by Hugo Villa, a doctor who has worked in La Oroya for 20 years and has called for studies to determine if there is a link between smelter emissions and cancer in the town of 30,000 people.
"This girl had more than 100 micrograms of arsenic per gram of creatine which is an extremely high level," he tells Al Jazeera. "And definitely that arsenic must have lowered the defences in that girl."
"The sulphur dioxide provokes breathing problems; the lead principally attacks the growth of a child and arsenic is proven to be cancerous."
Villa tested newborn babies in 2004 where he found ten microgrammes of lead in the blood of 30 per cent of the children and more than six microgrammes in the rest.
|Mercedes Inga's daughter was just 14 when she died of skin cancer
"Newborn babies should not have anything in their blood," he says. "And that presupposes that the mothers whilst pregnant were the ones transmitting the lead to the babies."
Doe Run claim emissions have actually decreased in La Oroya since the company took over smelter operations more than ten years ago and says environmental problems at the plant go back decades and that they continue to spend millions of dollars in combatting them.
"For the first time in more than 85 years all the emissions, all the environmental impacts coming from our operations will be brought under control," Victor Andrés Belaúnde, a spokesman for Doe Run, says.
"However, addressing outstanding issues at La Oroya exceeds the role of one company itself."
But critics say that the decrease in levels is immaterial and that according to government information released at the end of last year Doe Run is not complying with obligatory annual air quality standards.
Jose Luis Capela from the Environmental law Society in the Peruvian capital Lima has been pressing government agencies to hold Doe Run more accountable.
"The state is obliged to reassure the population that the activities it approves will not affect the environment," he says. "I think that in this case the state is not giving that reassurance to the people of La Oroya."
Capela claims Doe Run failed to comply with a deadline agreed with the government to modernise the smelter complex by 2006.
"When the deadline arrived, the company said it couldn’t comply for several reasons, basically those related to the gas treatment plants which they said were too expensive and too difficult to implement," he says.
Belaunde says the deadline was not feasible because the cost of the project was vastly underestimated.
An extension of the deadline until 2009 has been agreed but representatives from the mining fiscal office that oversees Doe Run’s compliance with Peruvian law has refused to divulge why.
Doe Run promised to comply with air quality standards for toxic emissions as a condition for the extension but violations have continued.
"We began a process to sanction them on certain parameters that surpassed permissible levels," Guillermo Shino from the mining fiscal office, says. "We are talking for example of cadmium and bismuth that on some occasions exceed permissible levels."
Capela says such sanctions are weak and in 2006 the law society filed a case with the Interamerican commission for human rights seeking state protection and assistance for citizens of La Oroya.
But today little has changed according to Mercedes Inga and health assistance has not been forthcoming.
|Hugo Villa wants the government to launch studies on the effects of pollution on health
"For example we even went to Lima to get ourselves checked in the ministry of health, but what have they given us? Lies," she says.
The ministry of health refused to comment but Doe Run says it is aware of health concerns and underwrites hygiene measures that it says can decrease exposure to lead and finances street cleaning campaigns.
Such measures address simply the effects and not the cause of the problem according to Mosao and other critics.
"You don't gain a lot by doing cleaning campaigns, hand washes," Dr Hugo Villa says.
"It is ok, it is good that they do it but that will not solve the problem.The problem needs to be solved by the company, by reducing the emissions and by modernising the complex."
In September Doe Run opened a suplphuric acid plant that was originally scheduled to open in 2006, with another set to open next year.
But La Oroya citizens say the emissions requirements imposed on Doe Run are lenient compared to those required even in the US.
"The government and the company have to acknowledge that they have failed on these people," Villa says.
"All I ask the company is to let us speak, we are all free, we're telling the truth and they know they're killing us slowly with the poison give us daily in arsenic and lead," Mercedes Inga says.
Members of Mosao say speaking out is their only option despite what progress and promises are made and that their activities have at least brought recognition of the environmental problems in the town and the pollution that exists.
"We,in La Oroya, like anyone wouldn't like to leave our town due to the lack of responsibility of a state that does not force a company to comply with what it promised," Rosa Amaro says.
"We can't do that and we have to fight and hope that our land will be different tomorrow."