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


Over the past year, 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.

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. The impact of chemical exposures during early life development as well as to individuals suffering from severe nutritional deficiencies are compounded due to the long-term impact on metabolic function. 

Project Description

This Bass Connections project team will be engaged in up to three possible areas of research:

  1. Study the relationship between vulnerability and risk perception of oil spills with environmental justice issues.
  2. Evaluate exposures to PAHs following the oil spills, particularly in humans, but also in invertebrates and sediment cores.
  3. Conduct a case-control study to examine differences in oxidative stress, spirometry and asthma, obesity, hypertension and kidney function among people who have “volunteered” to clean up oil spills over the past 24 months and those living near oil spills.

The team will work 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 will help 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.

Anticipated Outcomes

Summarized assessment of qualitative data collected; completed evaluation of the health and environmental impact of the oil spill events across the region; report (in Spanish) to be shared with the Peruvian Ministries of Health and Environment; recommendations for mitigation of crude oil exposure to stakeholders

Student Opportunities

Students will gain experience in research design, translational research and policy development. Research will be conducted in the northern Peruvian Amazon region of Loreto during Summer 2018. Activities will involve visiting eight to ten communities to conduct informal interviews with community leaders, health workers and residents; a sampling of invertebrates and sediment cores of PAH environmental exposure assessments; and the case-control study to evaluate human health impacts following exposure.

We expect to recruit at least one doctoral student, one master’s student and three undergraduate students from a broad range of disciplines, including environmental health (with toxicology), international or environmental policy, sociology, economics, statistics or global health. All applicants should have at least an intermediate level of Spanish, although we will make exceptions for students with unique skills that are absent from the team as a whole.


Fall 2017 – Fall 2018

  • Fall 2017: Finalize team by October 1; overview of project goals; Module 1: Toxicology of crude oil exposure; team building exercises
  • Spring 2018: Weekly meetings; Module 2: Qualitative research methods; Module 3: Environmental policy; IRB requirements; CITI training and certificates; arrange for shipping of human and environmental samples from Peru
  • Summer 2018: Depart for Peru in May; visit offices of regional Ministries of Health for each selected region; identify 2-4 communities to visit in each region to conduct informal interviews, market surveys and community infrastructure assessments (minimum of 8 weeks spent in the field)
  • Fall 2018: Run toxicology screens for data collected; draft summary of results from interviews and community data collection; compile any ancillary data collected from national databases


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

See earlier related team, Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Research and Policy Development to Reduce Chemical Exposures (2016-2017).

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Lee Ferguson, Pratt - Civil & Environmental Engineering
Heileen Hsu-Kim, Pratt School - Civil & Environmental Engineering*
Joel Meyer, Nicholas School - Environmental Sciences & Policy*
Ernesto Ortiz, Duke Global Health Institute
William Pan, Nicholas School - Environmental Sciences & Policy*
Heather Stapleton, Nicholas School - Environmental Sciences & Policy

Community 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

* denotes team leader