Elina María Nuutinen Vera Tudela

The Sensory Sacrifice Zone:

Sacrificing Wellbeing at Home and School in Quintero-Puchuncaví, Chile

Sacrifice zones are defined as “‘hot spots’ of chemical pollution where residents live immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries”.1 The Quintero-Puchuncaví bay was the first of five sacrifice zones in Chile. Developed in the 1950s with the goal of boosting Chile’s economic development, the bay’s Ventanas Industrial Park has over 15 plants in operation today, heavily contaminating Quintero-Puchuncaví.

The senses are the main pathway by which we experience the world around us, indicating how our environment affects our wellbeing through positive or negative stimuli. I conducted a focused case study to find how the physical, psychological, and socioeconomic wellbeing of residents of Quintero-Puchuncaví is affected by the presence of polluting industries. The sensory experience of seven locals, specifically in the spatial contexts of home and schools, was investigated. The interviewees described experiences in which they were able to see, smell, taste, and feel the environmental contamination, as well as ways of coping with the air pollution in their quotidian routines.

Visual traces of contamination within the home impact the psychological wellbeing of the people of Quintero-Puchuncaví. One instance of visual contamination experienced by Quintero-Puchuncaví locals takes place in the external spaces of the home. Noelia, 57, narrated an anomalous incident common to the zone, specifically rainbow-coloured, sulphur-like substances appearing on one’s patio:

In the backyard sometimes you’d see like, rainbows, so to speak, colourful spots where you could see the yellow stood out [...] one would go sweep the yard in the morning and it already had these spots that were like rainbows but the yellow was most noticeable like it was sulphur [...] on the ground (Noelia, 57)

This interviewee’s description matches the characteristics of the visual effect created by petrol when in contact with water, which might suggest the presence of similar chemicals in the air. While the visual of a rainbow may initiate a positive response, this unwanted stain speaks to the area’s excess pollution.

The industries’ toxic odours have a powerful impact in both homes and schools, primarily compromising inhabitants’ physical, psychological, and socioeconomic wellbeing by provoking serious ill-being and unpleasant physical sensations. Constanza, an interviewee, recounted a time where she opened her home’s windows during an environmental warning and felt the severe consequences:
I hadn’t seen the warning so I opened the windows to air out the house, but I started feeling unwell. I got a headache, discomfort in my throat, a need to vomit, a stomach ache, I also had indigestion [...] but I didn’t really know why that was happening to me, and then when speaking to friends they told me it was because there was an environmental warning, and I was like ‘oh ok, I opened the windows’. It was bad. Bad, bad, bad. I would say the effects lasted a bit over a day, two days, give or take. (Constanza, 29)

Constanza is not the only interviewee who mentioned experiencing the effects of Quintero-Puchuncaví’s contamination through inhalation; in fact, almost every interviewee mentioned at least one physical symptom they personally experience frequently due to breathing in the pollution.

Finally, the contaminated taste of drinking water, seafood, and crops of the sacrifice zone negatively impacts psychological, physical, and socioeconomic wellbeing within homes. Although it is claimed to be potable, residents of Quintero-Puchuncaví have reservations about the local tap water. Interviewees mentioned that they avoid drinking water from the tap or using it for cooking without first boiling it. When asked about why this is, Constanza stated:

In theory the water is potable, the one from the tap, but people don’t drink it because the flavour is different [...] It’s disgusting, it has a taste of chlorine. (Constanza, 29)

This interviewee is not the only one who feels this way. In her interview, Veronica gravely stated: “I never ever drink tap water” (Veronica, 29). Despite the government’s claims that the tap water is safe for consumption, residents of Quintero-Puchuncaví feel inclined to be sceptical of authorities, elevating feelings of distress and thus negatively impacting psychological wellbeing.

Quintero-Puchuncaví is in dire need for legislation that allows for the gradual elimination of mass industrial activity. The promise of economic development does not justify sacrificing the health and wellbeing of the people of this sacrifice zone.

[1] Bullard, R.D. (2011). ‘Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States’. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(6). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114843/