The Health Emergency in the Ecuadorian Amazon Region

Aguinda Family

Maria del Carmen Villota had a farm with her husband in the community of San Carlos. Every day at lunch time she walked on a road that was covered with crude oil dumped by Texaco. She would leave food for her husband who was working on the farm.  She also washed clothes with the water from a nearby stream that was polluted with oil from recent spills.

“When the water rose it brought all the crude in the stream with it to the stream where I got my water, so as I saw the crude I washed and continued on the same,” said Maria.

Maria testified on March 8, 2006 during the judicial inspection carried out in the separation station Sacha Sur, located in the community of San Carlos. Her testimony was part of Aguinda vs. ChevronTexaco, the class-action law suit in which 30,000 farmer and indigenous inhabitants of the Ecuadorian Amazon have sued the multinational for contamination.

Eight months after Maria testified she died of cancer.

Fight and Resist

María del Carmen Villota is another victim of the contamination caused by Texaco (today Chevron) between 1964 and 1992 in the provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos, where the company initiated the oil exploitation in the country. While Aguinda vs. ChevronTexaco continues in the court of Lago Agrio, more victims die due to the contaminating practices of a U.S. oil company that only cared about maximizing profits, while ignoring the well-being and health of the Ecuadorian people.

The purpose of this report is not only to present health statistics and the existing proof of contamination, but also to encourage people to use this information to fight and resist the injustices that the people in the northern Amazon region of Ecuador, who are living in a state of health emergency, suffer.

This report focuses on three rights: the right to clean water, the right to health, and the right to medical assistance.

The Right to Clean Water

Access to water is a fundamental right assured by the state according to articles 20 and 42 of the Ecuadorian Constitution. Water is needed to survive and to carry out various daily and vital activities.[i] 

In spite of the fact that access to this resource has been recognized nationally and internationally as an indispensable human right, Texaco systematically dumped 18.5 billion gallons of carcinogenic and toxic waste to an infinite number of marshes, streams, and rivers in the provinces of Orellana and Sucumbios. An analysis of 412 water samples from the region and inspected by the Court found that 99 percent of the samples taken contain levels of toxins which exceed the standards permitted by law and represent a risk to human health.[ii] 

In 1992, when Texaco left its operations in Ecuador, it abandoned more than 1,000 pools which held such toxic substances as chromium 6, lead, barium, and cadmium. The known carcinogen chromium 6, which is used to prevent corrosion during perforation of wells, can, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “cause stomach upsets and ulcers, convulsions, kidney and liver damage, and even death.”[iii] Texaco itself admits that the pools lacked lining [iv], which is used to protect the pools from leaching toxins. Instead, throughout the years the toxic contents of the pools filtered into the ground water, streams, and rivers, slowly killing an already diminished farmer and indigenous population.

Due to economic reasons, and with complete disregard to the human costs, the company decided not to eliminate the waste in an adequate way. 100 percent of the 42 sites inspected by the Court, show levels of toxins that surpass those permitted by the law, and of the 29 inspected sites that were supposedly “remediated”, 100 percent show contamination. Environmental remediation deals with the removal of contaminants from soil, sediment, groundwater, or surface water for the general protection of human health and the environment and is subject to an array of regulatory requirements according to the contract Texaco signed with the Ecuadorian government.

Since 1993, Petroecuador is now responsible for oil exploitation in the region. According to a report by the Office of the Comptroller General of the State, between June 1, 2000 and August 30, 2004, petro-production let out 83 million barrels of drilling water due to the lack of re-injection technology.[v] The technology that Petroecuador inherited from Texaco is a threat to the lives of Ecuadorians as well as to humanity for its destruction of the ecosystem. The company continues to use the same contaminating practices.

The Right to Health

The impacts of oil exploitation on health have been proven through various scientific studies carried out all over the world. Much of this information, based on peer-reviewed research, was compiled in a report by the prestigious Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment. The report concludes that oil exploitation exposes workers and communities to health risks, due to the exposure to chemicals, metals, drilling mud and accidental explosions.[vi] 

Meanwhile, despite the abundance of existing research on the link between cancer cases and other diseases and with the permanent exposure to the toxins of the oil activities,[vii] Texaco continues to arrogantly allege that diseases from which the population in the region suffers are due to the lack of hygiene.[viii] The compounds used in the exploitation phases such as organic volatile hydrocarbons like benzene, metals such as barium, chromium, and zinc, water with high levels of salt, and the radioactive materials are highly toxic both to human health and the environment.[ix]  The National Tumor Registry show that the rates of diagnosed cancer cases, based on medical histories registered in the capital Quito, has risen exponentially since the creation of this registry in 1984.[x]

The State should guarantee, promote, and protect the right to health through prevention of environmental contamination and recuperation of degraded spaces of nature as mandated in articles 42 and 86, number two in the Political Constitution of Ecuador.

Child from San Carlos with skin problems

Skin problems on child

Without a doubt, children are the most affected by the contamination and the most vulnerable. The leukemia rate in children 0 to 4 years of age who live in regions with oil exploitation is three times higher than in other parts of the country. The scientists who carried out the comparative study, Dr. San Sebastian and Dr. Anna-Karin Hurtig, investigated in regions with oil exploitation and in areas free from exploitation.[xi]

The women, who in many instances are heads of the household,[xii] are permanently exposed to the water contaminated with hydrocarbons, [xiii] because of their responsibilities to provide the basic necessities such as clean water and to wash.[xiv] The Yana Curi study resumes that women who live in the proximity of oil wells and separation stations in the Ecuadorian Amazon presented a higher frequency of symptoms related to the exposure to oil.[xv] Another study published in the International Journal of Occupation and Environmental Health found the rate of miscarriages to be 2.5 times higher in the communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon exposed to oil contamination than that in similar communities which are not. Other factors were taken account for, such as age of pregnancy, state of the pregnancy and socio-economic status, but none of these could explain the high incidence of the association between miscarriages and living in the proximity of oil fields. [xvi] 

The Right to Medical Assistance

“The doctors told us to go to Quito to bring my three children to be cured, because it was due to contamination. But without money we couldn’t bring them and they died. One was 3 years old, the other 2 and the third 5 months.”[xvii]

Amnesty International affirms that women and children in marginalized communities in Ecuador often lack access to medical assistance.[xviii] On the local level, the Board of Health of the Bi-provincial Assembly of Orellana and Sucumbios also report the lack of medical assistance, since private medical assistance is not an alternative for the poorest population of the country.[xix]

In 2004, the Pan-American Journal of Public Health of the OPS (a regional organization of the World Health organization) concluded that the region suffers a “health emergency,” referring to the study by the same journal and titled “Oil Exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon: a Public Health Emergency” of Drs. Sebastian and Hurtig, which indicates that in communities close to oil wells, the most common health problems are skin fungus, head ache, eye irritation, ear pain, as well as “an excess in cancer.” [xx]

Ecuador‘s newly elected president Rafael President Correa visited the Ecuadorian Amazon close to the Day of the Amazon, February 12, which is a day in homage to Francisco de Orellana’s “discovery” of the Amazon river in 1542. But it also marks 465 years of Amazonian resistance to colonization.

ImageCorrea is following in the footsteps of Venezuela‘s Hugo Chavez and announced his position to increase oil exploitation in order to fund the health services, thereby offering the disease as the cure and stripping an already suffering population of their last dignity.[xxi]

It is necessary to not only research the imminent health emergency and the impacts of oil exploitation in human health from the studies mentioned in this report, but also take action to prevent further deterioration of the health of a population which is paying the price of Texaco’s toxic legacy. Any action adopted by the national government should focus on the prevention of the diseases that the population in the north of the Ecuadorian Amazon region has been exposed to.

This can be accomplished by averting further contamination from oil exploitation, and taking into account those populations which are most affected and most distant from the urban centers where the medical services usually are located. Such measures will not only lead to the recognition of the interdependence of human health and the environment, but will also contribute to the recuperation of the cultural values of the farmer and indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Contact Hanna Dahlström at

[i] Constitución Política de la República del Ecuador, art. 20 y 42. [Constitution].

[ii] Estos y todos los resultados de laboratorio del muestreo de suelos y aguas en las inspecciones judiciales

reposan en los archivos de los demandantes y de la corte de Lago Agrio, donde son parte de la evidencia.

[iii] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

[iv] Glaubitz, Kurt. “Trial in Ecuador.” Second Quarter 2004: 5 

[v] Auditoria ambiental a la gestión de Petroproduccion en los procesos de explotación y producción de crudo, relacionados con fluidos y lodos de perforación y aguas de formación en las provincias de Orellana y Sucumbios. Abril 2005: 18.

[vi] Epstein, Paul R. y Jesse Selber, eds. “Oil: A Life Cycle Analysis of its Health and Environmental Impacts.” The Center for Health and the Global Environment. 2002.  

[vii] Clapp, Richard W., Howe, Genevieve K., y Shevaun Aysa Mizrahi, “Oil Extractions and Its Human Health Impacts in the Amazon Region of Ecuador“. Julio 2006.

[viii] “Texaco en Ecuador.”  

y ver a David O’Reilly, CEO de Texaco, entrevista con la British Broadcasting Corporation disponible en

[ix] Dutton, A., Smyth, R., Nance, H., Mulligan, J., Gu, Y. “History, Regulation, and Closure of Abandoned Centralized and Commercial Drilling-Fluid Disposal Sites in Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.” Bureau of Economic Geology, the University of Texas at Austin, Reprinted from Proceedings of the 2000 Ground Water Protection Council Annual Forum, September 24-27, 2000, Ft. Walton Beach, FL.

[x] Auditoria ambiental a la gestión de Petroproduccion en los procesos de explotación y producción de crudo, relacionados con fluidos y lodos de perforación y aguas de formación en las provincias de Orellana y Sucumbios. Abril 2005.

[xi] Hurtig AK. and San Sebastian M., “Incidence of Childhood Leukemia and Oil Exploitation in the

Amazon Basin of Ecuador“, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 10(3):245-50 (2004).

[xii] El estado de los derechos de niñez y la adolescencia en Ecuador 2005.” Observatorio de los Derechos de la Niñez y la Adolescencia, UNICEF, Fundación Observatorio Social del Ecuador. Quito, 2006: 194. 

[xiii] San Sebastián M., Armstrong B y Stephens C. “La Salud de mujeres que viven cerca de pozos y estaciones de petróleo en la Amazonía ecuatoriana.” Revista Panamericana de Salud Publica, 9(6): 375-384 (2001), (comunidades dependientes de arroyos altos en TPH’s demostraron la prevalecía significativamente mayor de hongos de la piel, irritación nasal, irritación de garganta, fatiga, dolores de cabeza, irritación de ojos, dolores de oído, diarrea y gastritis).

[xiv] Camacho Zambrano, Gloria. “Mujeres al borde: Refugiadas colombianas en el Ecuador.” Quito, Ecuador: UNIFEM, 19

[xv] “Informe Yana Curi: Impactos de la actividad petrolera en poblaciones rurales de la Amazonia Ecuatoriana” Instituto de Epidemiología y salud comunitaria “Manuel Amunarriz”. Coca, 2000.

[xvi] San Sebastian M., Armstrong B. y Stephens C., “Outcomes of pregnancy among women living in the proximity of oil fields in the Amazon basin of Ecuador.” International Journal of Occupational & Environmental Health,  8(4):312-9 (2002).

[xvii] Maldonado, Adolfo y Alberto Narváez. Ecuador ni es, ni será ya, país amazónico. Quito: Acción Ecológica, 2003.

[xix] “Gobierno y petroleros incumplen los acuerdos firmados con la Asamblea de Orellana-Sucumbios” Comision de Prensa de Orellana. Boletín de prensa. 15 de diciembre de 2006. 

[xx] San Sebastián M y AK Hurtig. “Oil exploitation in the Amazon basin of Ecuador: a public health emergency.” Revista Panamericana de Salud Publica, 2004; 15(3): 205-211.

[xxi] Gobierno está revisando los contratos petroleros en busca de ilegalidades; no descarta declarar caducidad.” El Comercio. 3 feb 2007.