Original Research Proposal

Health concerns related to chemical exposure
in gold and silver mines in Huamachuco, Perú

For my research project I want to assess the health problems that plague Huamachuco. I am also interested in current social issues that happening in this region of Peru. The two topics mix when we look at current mining practices and health risks associated for miners. Specifically I want to look at chemical exposure and their correlation to sickness. My research will address the question “do mine workers have a higher prevalence of illnesses related to exposure to particular chemicals used in the mining process of gold and silver?” The chemicals used will be specific to the type of mining done in the areas and this will also affect which diseases are hypothesized to be more prevalent. A cohort study will be detailed below but will focus on comparing two similar cohorts of typical Peruvian families. A cohort of Peruvian miners and non-miners will be defined.

Before I can define my cohorts the research questions must be defined. As the conditions of Huamachuco are susceptible to change so must the research questions be able to change and evolve. The first question must be “what types of mining are done in and around Huamachuco?” Based on initial research, I have determined that the most common mining done in this area is for gold and silver. Mining of both these metals are strongly associated with particular diseases. A strong contributor to disease is the chemicals that are used in the mining and refining process. Thusly, the miners are exposed to these chemicals and can become sick. So then the next question I hope to answer through literature review will be what specific chemicals are used in the mining and refining of precious metals. Once this is addressed the diseases associated with specific chemical exposure must be determined. Gold mining has been associated with many diseases, including “cancer of the trachea, bronchus, lung, stomach, and liver frequency of pulmonary tuberculosis (PTB), silicosis, and pleural diseases” (Eisler, 325). These will be the diseases that I specifically look at and try to correlate with the participant’s activities in the mines.

Data will be collected through interviews with miners. During these interviews I will ask about their employment history in order to learn about their dealing with mining chemicals, determine potential exposures, and if they have had prolonged experience with such chemicals and mining practices. Men who have worked in mining for a longer time are (hypothesized) to have more cases of exposure related illnesses. The interviews will be conducted at the participant’s convenience and since miners probably work during the day, most interviews will have to be conducted in the evening or on the weekends. For comprehension purposes all interviews will be recorded but not shared. Participant identity will be protected through omission of last names and identifying details. They will be made aware of this before any interviewing.

The first cohort will be my control group comprised of middle class Peruvian citizens. Their socioeconomic status will mirror the experimental group (Miners).  I will identify these members of the community and take a detailed medical history of each participant. This will include current age of the, occupations, how frequently they become sick, which illnesses they contract, and other potential contributors to illness. Ideally I would have a large sample size (30+) for this group, but based on time restrictions a smaller cohort will be used (10 households). These participants should represent a variety of occupations. The occupations should be reflective of the major industries in Huamachuco.  I hypothesize that this group will have lower rates of diseases associated with exposure to chemicals used in mining practices.

The participants of the control group will consist of solely men of working age and will be the principle breadwinners for the home.  Since this group should mirror the experimental group, I want their ages and all other aspects to be similar. This group will be established first and be used to guide selection for the experimental group.  They will be drawn from other major economic sectors in Huamachuco. I will draw some from the agriculture industry, animal herders, artisans, and education sectors.

The Second cohort will be made up of ten miners from different mines. Ideally five would work in the silver mines and five in the gold mines. By selecting participants from different mines there is less of a chance for participants to learn who the others are and will keep results more unbiased. After determining their names, age, and basic demographic information I will look at how long they have been working in the mining industry and in what capacity. I believe that if a person has been working for a long period (more than 5 years) they will show a medical history of chronic exposure to mining toxins. However, this will be dependent on the role they play in the mining company. For example, someone in a managerial position who does mostly administrative work will have less exposure to dangerous chemicals than someone who is more directly involved in the refinement of the metals, a job that requires direct contact with dangerous chemicals. I will want to take a detailed family history of disease going back at least two generations. By doing this I will be able to see if there is a family history of chronic diseases such as certain types of cancer, renal disease, liver disease, etc. which could skew results. Furthermore, I will look at the frequency that they have become sick in the past 5 years and which illnesses they commonly contracted. Finally, I would want to find out how many times in this time period they have needed to visit the hospital including inpatient stays. By looking at which illnesses they have had I can make a correlation to toxin exposure. I will also ask them about which, if any, safety measures are in place and what kind of information they have received regarding chemical safety.

Through my investigation I believe that I will find higher rates of chronic illnesses including cancer, renal disease, and respiratory infections among mining populations while the control group will exhibit rates within normal rates. A normal rate will be based on an established base line through looking at existing public health records. After assessing the health education that miners receive, I hope to be able to share my findings with the mining companies in order to help them augment their programs to better protect the miners.

An educational program could be devised based on this study. The educational program would have to be tailored to the educational level of the miners. Since illiteracy is a large problem in Huamachuco, a pamphlet campaign might not be effective and a more interactive program may be needed. The program I suggest would be a public forum set up. In this program miners would have the opportunity to come together and speak with health care professionals and local advocates about health concerns. This group could meet on a weekly basis and allow the miners to network with other local miners that might be experiencing similar health issues. I think that this network of miners could grow into a self-advocacy group that could lobby for labor reform in the mining industry.  However, this proposal is subject to change based on the current conditions of Huamachuco and the programs that are already in place. There will be barriers that I will have to overcome including being seen as an outsider. As a gringo I am not a member of their community this may cause some resistance when discussing sensitive information such as personal health information. I fear that this will be exacerbated by an inability to fluently communicate in Spanish. In order to overcome this second barrier I will have to work hard to study this topic specific vocabulary and be mindful of my verb conjugation.

Eisler, Ronald. “Health Risks of Gold Miners: A Synoptic Review.” Environmental Geochemistry and Health 25.3 (2003): 325-45. PubMed. Web.


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