Inside the simple wood-frame house, a 6-year-old boy plays with a piece of malleable metal, biting it as his younger sister watches. In the background, piled against the wall, are two long strips of the metal – lead sheathing from an electrical cable that the family sold for scrap.
Lead seems like an odd thing to find in an Achuar village deep in the Peruvian Amazon. But the metal is valuable here, since it is easily molded to make perfect weights for fishing lines and nets.
That convenience comes at a cost. Three out of every four children in communities in the Corrientes River basin have blood lead levels higher than those considered excessive under U.S. health guidelines.
The lead strips found inside the homes solved a mystery that had long puzzled researchers.
Scientists had expected to find that water polluted by oil drilling upriver was responsible for the villagers’ high lead levels. But to their shock, they discovered that children and teens were fashioning homemade fishing sinkers from scrap lead with their teeth.
“The results were really unexpected,” said Peruvian researcher Cynthia Anticona, who conducted the study as part of her doctoral research in public health at Umeå University in Sweden.