Chile Feminists Help Force Closure of Plant Causing Local Pollution

A feminist group in Chile has forced the closure of a smelting plant that caused local pollution.

The coastal towns of Quintero and Puchuncaví in Chile are considered one of five 'sacrifice zones' in the country—industrialized areas containing chemical plants that were set up in the 1960s.

This particular zone has previously been dubbed "the Chilean Chernobyl" by environmental charity Greenpeace, due to the health effects the plants have had on local citizens.

The area is home to 50,000 people. Feminist campaign group the Women of Quintero-Puchuncaví Sacrifice Zone in Resistance fight for environmental justice for the area and have finally succeeded in urging the government to take action, Open Democracy reported.

In June this year, over a hundred locals, including children, suffered symptoms from sulfur dioxide poisoning. The symptoms included headaches, respiratory problems, dizziness, eye irritation, nausea and more. This was put down to high levels of sulfur dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere from nearby factories.

At the time of the June poisoning, Gladys González, a 56-year-old teacher from the area, told The Observers that her students are used to headaches.

"We are resigned, we know we'll die of cancer. Here, the industries make money at the expense of our health," González told the news outlet.

Codelco, a Chilean copper mining company, runs a smelting plant in the area that, according to Open Democracy, is responsible for around 62 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions in the area.

Gabriel Boric, the president of Chile, announced the closure of the plant altogether, following the June poisoning. However, unions representing the workers of the plant claimed the closure was "unfounded."

The campaign group has posted pictures on its Facebook page, showing protestors outside the plants, causing poisoning in the area.

On June 17, the government announced that the smelting plant would close through a phased approach.

The feminist group is made up of women who live in the area. They formed over ten years ago to fight for environmental justice. According to Open Democracy, the group campaigned for action by highlighting their role as carers for the community.

Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas. It can be produced naturally by volcanic activity, or as a by-product of copper extraction. Too much sulfur dioxide can seriously affect a person's respiratory system. The gas can attack lung function, and worsen existing conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis. Tell-tail signs of sulfur dioxide poisoning include eye irritation, sore throat, a burning to the eyes, coughing and runny nose. If a high level of sulfur dioxide is inhaled, it can swell the lungs and causing difficulty breathing.

Rob Chilcott, professor of toxicology at the University of Hertfordshire, told Newsweek: "Like all chemicals, the effects of sulfur dioxide will be proportional to the dose and duration exposure. Long-term exposure to sulfur dioxide may lead to lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, although there is some evidence that prolonged exposure may also increase the risk of also developing diabetes and heart disease. These effects are primarily related to the fact that sulfur dioxide reacts with the moist tissue tissue lining the eyes and lungs where it forms sulfuric acid, which of course is highly corrosive. In most developed countries, there are strict controls over the amount of sulfur dioxide that may be present in the air."

Chilcott said that deaths can occur from sulfur dioxide poisoning.

"Deaths from exposure to sulfur dioxide have occurred following volcanic eruptions and following industrial exposures. Sulfur dioxide is thought to kill tens of thousands of people each year in countries where air pollution is not subject to strict controls," Chilcott said.

Following the June poisoning, Secretaries of State have also declared a Health Alert in the area, a government press release said, which will allow "actions to be taken to protect people's health during the winter, a period with poor ventilation conditions."

The Chilean Ministry of Health will also begin studies in July, analyzing the impact pollution is having on the people in the area.

"We think that these studies are going to give us elements to generate preventive and mitigation measures for this affectation. But we are also going to initiate a universal census process. We are going to take a census of the populations, with priority in children and adolescents in their own schools to know how they are and what are the effects that we can find in our population," the Ministry of Health said in a press release.

Katta Alonso, a member of the feminist group, told Open Democracy she was delighted that the Codelco plant would shut its doors as it is located just a few blocks from where she lives.

"We knew it had to be done, but we didn't expect them to do it," said Alonso.

Newsweek has contacted the Women of Quintero-Puchuncaví Sacrifice Zone in Resistance for a comment.

Update 07/18/22, 11:03 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include comment from Professor Rob Chilcott.

A stock photo shows chimneys protruding gases. A Chile campaign group succeeded in urging the government to help citizens affected by pollution. kodda