Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
The breakfast was served to schoolchildren between the ages of three and fourteen in the village of Tauccamarca, province of Cusco, on Friday, October 22. The milk substitute based on wheat, corn, soy and barley and packets of cookies were provided by the National Fund for Social Development and Compensation (FONCODES), as part of a government-sponsored nutrition program. The wife of the school's only teacher prepared the meal with the help of a 14-year-old student.
Children began vomiting and convulsing within a half hour of eating the contaminated food. "The kids were screaming, vomiting and grabbing their bellies. Some were dead, others were writhing on the grass and still more were on the school patio. We had no idea what to do," a village woman said, according to media sources. Children collapsed outside the school, on the dirt roads leading to their homes, and in the doorways of their parents' houses.
Healthy children attempted to lead sick children to their homes but many died along the way. Some villagers were able to carry their children to the town of Huasac, a 1 1/2 hour walk from Tauccamarca, where they could be evacuated to a hospital in the city of Cusco, several hours away. Parents of the victims said that if there were a road to their village, or if they had medical services there, some of the children might have been saved.
The Minister of Health and other government officials visited the village but did not claim responsibility for the disaster. President Alberto Fujimori made no comment. By the time national officials arrived on the scene, local police had confiscated the remainder of the government-provided food and it was not available for testing.
The government has offered several possible explanations for the event. Initially officials suggested that the milk substitute had been prepared in containers previously used for pesticides. Later the Minister of Health said that a local resident might have mixed some of the milk substitute with insecticide with the intention of poisoning a dog. Government officials denied the possibility that the company providing the food for FONCODES programs might be responsible for the contamination. Meanwhile, the schoolteacher and his wife were arrested and accused of criminal negligence.
Children in other parts of the country have also suffered symptoms of poisoning after eating government-donated food, but all have survived.
In response to this tragedy, the Red de Acción en Alternativas al uso de Agroquímicos (RAAA -- PAN Latin America) is calling for the immediate prohibition of highly toxic pesticides classified by the World Health Organization as 1a (extremely hazardous) and 1b (highly hazardous).
RAAA is calling on the government to recognize that it is impossible to guarantee the safety of highly toxic pesticides such as organophosphates. Many potential pesticide users in Peru are illiterate and have no way to learn about the risks associated with pesticides. Many villagers speak only their native language of Quechua, and do not know Spanish. In addition, many rural areas have no health care centers to treat victims of pesticide poisonings. Highly toxic pesticides should not be distributed in areas where the population has no protection against the risks associated with their use.
RAAA is asking the Ministry of Health to implement a program of quality monitoring to ensure that government-donated food is not contaminated with toxic substances. The Ministries of Health and of Agriculture should also develop a program to track pesticide poisonings throughout the country. As part of this program, doctors and nurses should receive training in the symptoms and treatment of pesticide poisonings. Finally, RAAA is calling on the Peruvian government to enforce its existing pesticide laws and to implement laws promoting safer alternatives.
RAAA requests that concerned groups and individuals support the campaign to eliminate these toxic pesticides by faxing letters as soon as possible to the following addresses:
Ingeniero Belisario de la Casa Piedra
Señor Luis Campo Baca
Please also fax or email a copy of your letter to RAAA.
Sources: RAAA press release, October 23, 1999; RAAA communications to Minister of Health and others, October 24, 1999; Juan Paliza, "Peru Probes Child Food-Poisoning Deaths," Reuters October 24, 1999; "Tainted Milk Kills 28 Peruvian Kids," Associated Press October 23, 1999; La República October 24-27, 1999
Contacts: Luis Gomero, Red de Acción en Plaguicidas y sus Alternativas para America Latina (RAPAL), Apartado Postal 11-0581, Lima, Peru, phone (51-1) 425 7955; fax (51-1) 337 5170; email email@example.com; PANNA