Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Impact of an Oil Spill in the Peruvian Amazon (2017-2018)

Over the past years, five large-scale oil spills have occurred in the northern Peruvian Amazon region of Loreto, resulting in over 7,000 barrels of oil being spilled into the rainforest, primarily near or in indigenous lands. Over 8,000 people from approximately 30 indigenous communities have been affected by the oil spills and interventions by government and industry have been slow, insufficient and short term, suggesting environmental injustice.

Crude oil spills are well documented to affect human and animal health, both directly via exposure to toxic chemicals, in particular polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and indirectly through impacts to water quality, agricultural production and overall ecosystem services.

This team studied the relationship between vulnerability and risk perception of oil spills with environmental justice issues. Team members traveled to Peru for eight weeks of field work in Summer 2018 and evaluated exposures to PAHs following the oil spills in invertebrates, sediment cores and humans. The team also conducted a case-control study to examine differences in oxidative stress, spirometry and asthma, obesity, hypertension and kidney function among people who “volunteered” to clean up oil spills and those living near oil spills.

The team worked with the regional health and environmental authorities on drafting and performing basic health and environmental impact assessments on the areas impacted by the oil spills. Team members also helped design an assessment of chemical exposure in select regions of Peru (focusing on chemicals associated with crude oil spills), consisting of exposure assessment, human health impact, human adaptation and response as well as environmental impact.


Fall 2017 – Fall 2018

Team Outcomes

Jacqueline R. Gerson, Natalie Szponar, Angelica Almeyda Zambrano, Bridget Bergquist, Eben Broadbent, Charles T. Driscoll, Gideon Erkenswick, David C. Evers, Luis E. Fernandez, Heileen Hsu-Kim, Giancarlo Inga, Kelsey N. Lansdale, Melissa J. Marchese, Ari Martinez, Caroline Moore, William K. Pan, Raúl Pérez Purizaca, Victor Sánchez, Miles Silman, Emily A. Ury, Claudia Vega, Mrinalini Watsa, Emily S. Bernhardt. 2022. Amazon forests capture high levels of atmospheric mercury pollution from artisanal gold mining. Nature Communications 13(559).

Axel J. Berky, Emily Robie, Susy Navio Chipa, Ernesto J. Ortiz, Emma J. Palmer, Nelson A. Rivera, Ana Maria Morales Avalos, Joel N. Meyer, Heileen Hsu-Kim, William K. Pan. 2022. Risk of lead exposure from wild game consumption from cross-sectional studies in Madre de Dios, Peru. The Lancet.

Axel J. Berky, Ian T. Ryde, Beth Feingold, Ernesto J. Ortiz, Lauren H. Wyatt, Caren Weinhouse, Heileen Hsu-Kim, Joel N. Meyer, William K. Pan. “Predictors of Mitochondrial DNA Copy Number and Damage in a Mercury-Exposed Rural Peruvian Population Near Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining: an Exploratory Study.” 2019. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis 60:197-210.

William Pan. Untangling Human-Animal Transmission of Cutaneous Leishmanaisis ($9,755 grant awarded from North Carolina State University, 2017)

This Team in the News

Six Ph.D. Graduates Who Leveraged Bass Connections for Their Doctoral Training

Gold Mining With Mercury Poses Health Threats for Miles Downstream

Deforestation, Erosion Exacerbate Mercury Spikes Near Peruvian Gold Mining

Public Policy Graduate Among Three Hart Fellows for 2019-2020

How DGHI Researchers Built Community Trust to Change Policy in the Peruvian Amazon

How Duke Researchers Built Community Trust to Change Policy in the Peruvian Amazon

How U.S. Demand for Gold Jewelry and Bullion Is Poisoning Children in the Amazon

See related teams, Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Impacts of Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon (2018-2019) and Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Research and Policy Development to Reduce Chemical Exposures (2016-2017).

Ernesto Ortiz

Team Leaders

  • Heileen Hsu-Kim, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Joel Meyer, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/graduate Team Members

  • Jacqueline Gerson, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Jamie Harris, Biology (BS)
  • Eliza Letourneau, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Luiza Perez, Sociology (AB), Global Health (AB2)
  • Bruno Valan, Biology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Axel Berky, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Ernesto Ortiz, Duke Global Health Institute
  • William Pan, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Heather Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Stella Hartinger, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH), Peru
  • Ana Maria Morales, Centro de Estudio, Investigacion y Servicios en Salud Publica de La Amazonia (CENSAP), Peru