Pollution's Youngest Victims

The children of La Oroya have grown up in the shadow of a giant smelter — too young to understand the devastating health threat it's created for more than 80 years.

Melinton Rivera says blood tests on his 6-year-old son Eller showed he has 34 micrograms of lead per deciliter — 10 is the normal level, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.

A recent study by St. Louis University screened more than 5,000 children here and found that 99 percent had three to seven tunes the acceptable lead levels.

The smelter, acquired by St. Louis-based Doe Run nine years ago, was the most likely source. The blood test results mobilized the community.

"They need to bring down the lead levels in our city," Rivera says in Spanish.

The campaign to help the children includes community groups and religious activists like Hunter Farrell.

Farrell, a Presbyterian minister from Texas, remembers the moment when environmental pollution became his cause after spending a day with a family whose child was tested for lead.

"Their child showed some significant problems in terms of coordination, in terms of cognitive development, and even some growths that had deformed the skull in several places, " Farrell says. "All of a sudden that child who was just a face before took on meaning to me. This was a child, this was another child of God."

Farrell says children's health remains in jeopardy because he believes Doe Run has failed to take sufficient steps to reduce pollution.

Juan Carlos Huyhua, Doe Run Peru's general manager, disagrees and says the company plans to spend $100 million on improvements by the end of the year.

"We reduce the lead — the cadmium production by 15 percent," Huyhua says. "And also we introduced the recycling operations with respect to copper and lead."

Huyhua says not only has the company lowered emissions by 40 percent as promised when it acquired the plant, it has made more pollution improvements than the government requires, such as cleaning employee work clothes at the plant.

Beyond the factory walls, Doe Run points to projects that it has taken voluntarily, such as joining with the Ministry of Health in washing down the streets and walls in the most polluted part of La Oroya.

Another voluntary project — a day care center 10 miles north of the city where children with extremely high lead levels can spend eight hours a day away from the worst pollution.

Doe Run teaches basic hygiene, emphasizing frequent hand washing and showers. Ministry of Health officials who work with Doe Run agree these are all good measures, but not necessarily the most important.

Dr. Jesus Diaz told CBS News the most important issue right now is to control emissions. The deadline to comply with government requirements is 21 months away, but Doe Run has asked for more time to complete the job. Until then, activist Hunter Farrell says the movement will continue.

"If we can't bring that level down, these people are condemned to all the health impacts that lead and cadmium and arsenic bring," Farrell says.

It may be too late to spare Melinton Rivera's sons, but he hopes that by telling his story he can help spare La Oroya from another generation of poisoned children.