efe-epaBy Alberto Valdes Gomez Quintero, Chile

Over the last month and a half, more than 700 residents of the Chilean coastal towns of Quintero and Puchuncavi have been hospitalized by toxins due to the high pollution levels, a blight that has continued for decades due to the number of industries operating in the region.

The area, near the city of Viña del Mar, has a massive manufacturing complex with 17 industrial plants, several of which produce or operate with toxins, the reason why the Medical College of Chile asked that it be declared a "catastrophe zone."

In a recently published report, the health organization reported the possible secondary effects to human health of these emissions, which can lead to "cancer, strokes and diminished immunity."

While many of these effects come from arsenic in the environment, an element not recorded in the latest samples taken and analyzed, and which led to an "environmental alert" being declared in the area in recent weeks, it did appear in a number of previous studies.

Specifically, both Quintero and Puchuncavi have lately been considered "areas saturated in sulphur dioxide and particulate matter," which causes, in children above all, nausea, headaches, abdominal pains and limbs falling asleep.

A situation even more "agonizing," Maria Araya, president of the Patient Consultation Council of Quintero's Adriana Cousiño Hospital, told EFE, is that the medical center in the town has a "low ranking" because "it has no specialists or resources" to treat such cases.

Official data refer to hundreds of people poisoned, but social organizations and health workers like Araya say there are many more, but they're not recorded because a single census of them in the region does not exist, nor does an efficient diagnostic system.

"We still don't know exactly what we're breathing, and if between Aug. 21 and 22 there were almost 400 children poisoned, during the remaining days of the month we took in 17 or 18 more cases," Araya said.

Valeria Carrasco, a local resident and militant in the activist group Women in the Quintero-Puchuncavi Sacrifice Zone, said that most of the poisonings occur "when the kids go to school" between 5 and 8 am.

"The companies belch out their smoke through the night, which produces a toxic cloud in the morning over the community, an hour when there is less control. It's a strategy they use, just as they choose cloudy days to release more emissions," Carrasco said.

The activist also noted that this is not a new problem in the region, because "since the industrial plants were installed, "there have been "waste dumpings and pollution alerts," though at first they never had such massive consequences.