Meteorite blamed for mysterious illness in Peru

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Location of Puno Region in Peru, where the meteorite struck.

On Saturday local villagers claimed a meteorite slammed into a field outside of Carancas, near Lake Titicaca in the Puno region of Peru on the border of Bolivia. It emitted a sweet but noxious odor. It has now been blamed for a mass illness affecting roughly 200 villagers with "nausea, vomiting, digestive problems and general sickness," according to a local health department official, Jorge López. "Boiling water started coming out of the crater and particles of rock and cinders were found nearby. Residents are very concerned," said López.

Police officers who went to investigate the meteorite are among those who have fallen ill and been taken to Desaguadero Hospital. The impact of the meteorite left a crater 18 feet deep and 30 yards across in the Andean territory that is home to less than 1,000 people. Originally, the villagers thought a plane had crashed. Under consideration is the declaration of a state of emergency.

Peruvian Nuclear Energy Institute engineer Renan Ramirez said scientists who went to investigate the crater found no indication of radiation, although, the fumes from the crater were so pungent that one scientist said his throat and nose were irritated despite his use of a mask.

Villagers are said to be avoiding the local water out of fear of contamination. Sulfur, arsenic and other elements common in meteorites can react with ground water to produce fumes. Ursula Marvin, a meteor expert at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, said a meteorite "wouldn't get much gas out of the earth" and that a more likely explanation for the health problems was the dust cloud caused when the rock hit the Earth.

Other explanations abound. Don Yeomans, head of the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said "Statistically, it's far more likely to have come from below than from above," noting that meteorites do not give off smells and it is likely the result of hydrothermal activity, such as a local gas explosion. Dr Caroline Smith, a meteorite expert with the Natural History Museum in London, thought more likely the villagers saw a common fireball and in the process of investigating it, did not find a 'crater' but "a lake of sedimentary deposit, which may be full of smelly, methane rich organic matter." And one science blogger, David Syzdek, theorized that in fact the crater is a mud volcano "that is producing toxic gasses [sic] such as methane, water, and perhaps other hydrocarbons. Many hydrocarbons can cause illness."


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