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Toxic Chemical Roulette: The Mines of Potosí   1 | 2 | 3 | 4 

5 Jan 2002

POTOSÍ, BOLIVIA — We're in Potosí, Bolivia, the highest city ("of its size") in the world, at 4070 meters above sea level. A city so high that cars roll downhill with their engines off because the routinely stall. And now that we're up this high, the first thing we're going to do is go right back down...into a mine.

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Geared Up

Cerro Rico was once famous for massive extractions of silver, dating back hundreds of years. In fact, so much silver was found during the days of Spanish conquest that to this day, Spaniards have an expression "Es un potosí" to mean something is excessively flamboyant and expensive. But today, the mines are dried up of silver and tin; it's only a modest amount of zinc that keeps the miners afloat, and only then when the market isn't saturated with the metal.

We headed into town from our converted monastery lodging early in the morning, and were a little disturbed by all the fresh blood splatters we saw on the ground in various places...but we'd get an idea of what that was all about later. We got some snacks and tissues — two great things to have in an asbestos-lined cave — then met up with our tour group for the mines at 9am.

Our group consisted of seven people: the two of us, a young and delightfully amusing couple from England, a quiet couple from Japan, and a single guy from Frankfurt, whose female companion was home ill. We started off going to a nearby bar, but our hopes were quickly dashed (or maybe relieved) when we found out this is just where the supplies were. We each traded our shoes for waterproof boots, donned nylon-protective pants and jackets, and grabbed a helmet with a clamp for a headlamp.

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Potent Stuff

Our guide was Juan, a former miner of three years. He started us off at the miners' market, to discuss the common staples of mining. First, there was the alcohol. This potent stuff was about 96% pure grain alcohol. One bottle is enough to knock out about 20 miners (or 50 gringos, as Juan put it). Every Friday, miners follow their steadfast tradition of going into town with a bottle of this stuff and drinking themselves to the point of total unconsciousness, right in the middle of the streets. Violence (remember the blood?) and death by alcohol poisoning are not unheard of. Since it was Saturday morning, Juan suggested we bring sodas and juices for the miners, since they'd still be pretty hung over from the night before.

Another other important item is coca leaves. The coca leaves are vital for sustaining the miner while he works underground. As he chews it like tobacco, it acts somewhat like an appetite suppressant. It more vitally helps to filter the contaminants he breathes in, reducing the amount of arsenic, silicon, and asbestos taken into the lungs. A bag of leaves will often sustain a miner for a single day, though it probably sustains his health for even less.

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Last updated: 24 Feb 2002 17:33:59