“The [Texaco] waste pits were upriver, and we drank water downriver. After bathing, our skin was covered with crude. I went to the oil companies, and they said this wouldn’t affect me, that the reason I had cancer was beceause I didn’t have good personal hygiene.”
– Woman from San Carlos, a community which studies found to have a cancer rate 2.3 times that of Quito
As soon as oil operations began, residents of the concession area began to experience strange new illnesses, which they quickly realized resulted from exposure to contaminated water. The only health care professionals in the region were Texaco's doctors, who, local residents recall, dismissively told people that their health problems had nothing to do with oil. When people complained of having to walk barefoot on roads Texaco had sprayed with oil to keep the dust down, the company's response was to give them free gasoline with which to wash the oil off their feet.
Chevron continues this tradition of denial and utter disrespect for people's suffering. Now, on trial in Lago Agrio, Chevron claims there is no proof of a link between oil and cancer. In fact, various chemicals present in crude oil are known carcinogens, such as benzene. There is abundant evidence that high rates of cancer in the region as a whole are caused in large part by oil contamination.
Chevron's consultant scientists, in questioning the validity of studies that show this link, are essentially seeking an impossible standard of proof which no epidemiological study will ever meet. Given the lack of medical records resulting from the poor state of health care services in the region, it is likely that actual cases of cancer outnumber those that have been recorded.
Chevron takes advantage of the lack of perfect data to claim that there's no evidence that cancer rates are elevated in the region. Anyone who has been there and spoken with locals will have heard a different story. Cancer has touched the lives of everyone living around Texaco's operations - countless people have had a family member suffer or die from it. In the face of these stories of human suffering, Chevron has the audacity to tell people to their faces, people who have built their homes on top of toxic waste pits (supposedly remediated by Chevron), that their illness has nothing to do with oil contamination.
Chevron attributes the health problems of the Ecuadorian Amazon to poverty and a lack of sanitation. But bacteria in drinking water does not cause cancer. Chemicals present in crude oil, drilling fluids, and produced water do, however. Furthermore, as to the question of poverty, it is important to recognize that much of the poverty in the region is due to oil operations, which have driven many people into crowded towns and low-wage work by rendering their traditional lifestyles impossible. These lifestyles depended on fish and game which is no longer plentiful, and water which is no longer safe to drink.
A letter printed in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, signed by over 50 eminent scientists, reminds us not to forget these connections:
"[Chevron's] web site maintains that the primary causes of disease in the region are poverty, poor sanitation... Yet nowhere does [Chevron] mention how oil development has conceivably altered these conditions, nor does it state that such conditions increase vulnerability to the environmental exposures of concern."
It is time for Chevron to take responsibility for the health crisis it has unleashed.