How did a meteor make hundreds of people sick?

Did a meteorite crash in Peru?

Most meteorites have high metal content, which helps them survive their entry through Earth's atmosphere, though the meteorite in Peru was rocky.
Most meteorites have high metal content, which helps them survive their entry through Earth's atmosphere, though the meteorite in Peru was rocky.
© Photographer: Jim Mills | Agency:

Six days after the initial event, scientists from Peru's Mining, Metallurgy and Geology Institute confirmed that a meteorite did crash in the area and that the impact stirred up arsenic fumes. Tests confirmed that groundwater in the area was contaminated with arsenic. The explosion sent up some of the arsenic in the form of gas, making people sick. (In some parts of Peru, the soil and groundwater contain natural arsenic deposits.)

Despite initial concerns, those who became sick improved after several days. Peruvian health workers reported that they treated about 200 residents for various symptoms, none especially severe [source: Living in Peru]. The hundreds of people who claimed they felt ill may have been suffering from a psychosomatic reaction. Some of the local residents said they thought that the loud roaring noise they heard and the subsequent explosion were the sounds of Chilean military forces launching an attack. The stress and mysterious nature of the event could have provoked physical symptoms, even without a physical cause.

As for the meteorite itself, Peruvian scientists recovered and analyzed several samples. One scientist who specializes in meteors estimated that prior to impact, the meteoroid measured 10 feet across, though it could have been far larger before breaking apart in the atmosphere [source: AP]. The meteorite was not radioactive or harmful. The samples did show that the meteorite was made entirely out of rock, which is considered unusual. Meteorites found on Earth usually contain metal because those meteorites are better at surviving the stress of entering the atmosphere, when friction can raise temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But the tests confirmed that it was indeed a meteorite that scientists found and that the explosion did not come from some other source. The meteorite samples also had magnetic properties, which scientists attributed to the rock's high iron content.

The meteorite and arsenic discoveries put to rest questions of what caused the explosion and why people became sick, but questions remain about the reports of water boiling in the crater -- if they are true at all. Was the meteorite so hot that, upon impact, it caused the groundwater to boil? Some commentators have claimed that meteorites, especially those of moderate size like scientists believe this one was, are cold when they hit the ground -- not hot. However, there's no conclusive proof about whether meteorites are hot or cold upon impact. Available evidence indicates that just after landing, meteorites are cold or only slightly warm [source: Cornell University Astronomy Department]. Meteorite impacts aren't known to cause major fires or to scorch large areas.

So why did the water boil? One possible answer is that some sort of geothermal event took place, with venting gases boiling the water, or perhaps the local villagers misreported what they saw. In any case, it's a question that may never be solved.

For more information about meteors and other related topics, please check out the links below.

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  • "Astrophysicist in Peru Identifies Properties in Meteorite." Living in Peru. Sept. 21, 2007.
  • "Doctors Aid in Rising Number of Illnesses after Meteorite Crash." Living in Peru. Sept. 19, 2007.
  • "Officials confirm meteorite but question sickness claims." The Associated Press. Sept. 19, 2007.
  • "Peru's Geophysicists Test for Radiation, Meteorite Sickness Casued by Toxic Gases." Living in Peru. Sept. 19, 2007.
  • Carter, Lynn. "Are meteorites hot or cold when they hit Earth?" Sept. 2002. Cornell University Astronomy Department.
  • Faal, Sorcha. "American spy satellite downed in Peru as US nuclear attack on Iran thwarted." Pravda. Sept. 20, 2007.
  • Fernandez, Liubomir and McDonnell, Patrick J. "Meteorite leaves an imprint on landscape and villagers in Peru." The Seattle Times. Sept. 21, 2007.
  • Hayes, Monte. "Meteorite Likely Caused Crater in Peru." The Associated Press. Sept. 21, 2007.
  • Nizza, Mike. "In Peru, a Crater and Questions." New York Times. Sept. 20, 2007.
  • Orozco, Jose. "Meteor Crash in Peru Caused Mysterious Illness." National Geographic News. Sept. 21, 2007.
  • Peck, Sally. "Hundreds ill after Peru 'toxic meteor crash.'" The Telegraph. Sept. 21, 2007.