Oil exploitation in Ecuador's Amazon basin produces a 'public health emergency'

04/01/04

This release is also available in Spanish.

Exploring for oil and extracting it from the Amazon region of northeastern Ecuador has boosted the country's income over the last several decades, but it has also resulted in a "public health emergency" due to the negative effects on the local environment and on the health of persons who live in the petroleum-production areas. That is according to an English-language article published in the most recent (March 2004) issue of the "Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública/Pan American Journal of Public Health." The "Revista/Journal" is a monthly, peer-reviewed scientific journal. The "Revista/Journal" article summarizes and reviews the scientific research that has been done on the environmental and health consequences of oil development in Ecuador.

Since the 1970s more than two billion barrels of crude oil have been pumped from oil fields in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Petroleum has been the "engine" for Ecuador's economy, helping push per capita income from US$ 290 in 1972 to US$ 1200 in 2000. Oil now accounts for some 40% of the nation's export earnings and of the national government's budget.

While boosting the Ecuadorian economy, oil production has also had serious consequences for the environment. For example, in just the period of 1972 through 1993, more than 30 billion gallons (114 billion liters) of toxic wastes and crude oil were discharged into the land and waterways of the Ecuadorian Amazon. This far exceeds the 10.8 million gallons (40.9 million liters) spilled in the "Exxon Valdez" tanker disaster in 1989 in Alaska, one of the largest sea oil spills that has ever occurred.

Analyses carried out in Ecuador in 1999 of rivers used by communities that are close to oil fields showed high levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons in the waters. In some streams, hydrocarbon concentrations were more than 100 times the limit permitted under European Community regulations.

Epidemiological studies have indicated that the pollution from Ecuador's oil industry has had negative health consequences for residents of the country's Amazon region. One study found that women living in communities near oil fields reported higher rates of such symptoms as tiredness, sore throat, headache, red eyes, earache, diarrhea, and gastritis. Another study found that the risk of spontaneous abortions was 2.5 times as high in women living in the proximity of oil fields.

Research done in 1998 found significantly higher rates of cancer among males in a village located in an oil-producing area. Another study, carried out in 2000, examined the differences in cancer rates over the period of 1985 to 1998 in the Ecuadorian Amazon and found a significantly higher overall incidence of cancers in both men and women in areas where oil exploitation had been on going for at least 20 years. Significantly elevated levels were found for cancers of the stomach, rectum, skin melanoma, soft tissue, and kidney in men and for cancers of the cervix and lymph nodes in women. There was also an increase in leukemia among children.

Residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon have demanded that oil-production companies clean up the environmental pollution that they have created and compensate them for damages caused by oil-related contamination. However, the measures adopted so far by oil companies and the various administrations of Ecuador's national government have been characterized as just "patches," such as covering some waste pits, building some schools, and constructing roads, all without facing the root of the problem.

The authors of the article suggest several interrelated measures to deal with the environmental and health damage caused by oil exploitation. The Ecuadorian government, they recommend, should conduct an evaluation of the environmental situation in the Amazon region as well as develop and oversee the implementation of a plan to repair the environmental damage that has already occurred and to limit further destruction. In addition, the government should acknowledge the need for health impact assessments as an integral feature of policy development and evaluation, and should move ahead in developing effective mechanisms to enforce the laws protecting the environment and the health of Ecuador's citizens. For their part, oil companies should change their practices to minimize environmental impacts in the Ecuadorian Amazon and to build partnerships with local communities so that local residents benefit from development.

"Oil exploitation in the Amazon basin of Ecuador," the article's authors say, "has resulted in a public health emergency because of its adverse impact on the environment and health. So far, the Ecuadorian government has not designed an adequate strategy to prevent further negative environmental and health impacts. The oil industry argues that it has a role to play in the development of the country, but that development should not come with the added cost of pollution and poor health."

The "Revista/Journal" article was written by Miguel San Sebastián and Anna-Karin Hurtig. Those two public health researchers are affiliated with the Umeå University International School of Public Health, in Umeå, Sweden, and with the "Manuel Amunárriz" Institute of Epidemiology and Community Health, in the city of Coca, Orellana province, Ecuador. Working with other researchers, San Sebastián and Hurtig have conducted several studies focusing on the health consequences of oil development in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The results of that research have been published in the "Revista/Journal" and several other peer-reviewed scientific journals. In October 2003 San Sebastián testified in an Ecuadorian court on behalf of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against Texaco, an oil company that worked in Ecuador for more than 20 years; the plaintiffs are some 30,000 indigenous persons and peasants who live in the Ecuadorian Amazon. (San Sebastián was not paid for his testimony in the lawsuit). That lawsuit is continuing; it is expected that in May 2004 court-appointed experts will inspect areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon to assess how much environmental damage may have been done in oil-producing areas. For its part, Texaco recently purchased full-page advertisements in Ecuadorian newspapers defending its record and insisting that the company complied with Ecuadorian laws and adequately cleaned up the areas where it had operated.

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