Illegal gold mining leads to mercury contamination in Peru


AP reports that a study of mercury contamination in a south-eastern Peruvian jungle found unsafe levels of the toxic metal in 78 percent of adults in the regional capital and in 60 percent of fish sold at markets. The area is known for its illegal gold mining.

The study, conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science, said that the situation represents a “grave and mounting threat to public health.”

Women of childbearing age recorded the highest average mercury levels. This segment of the population is also the most vulnerable to mercury as the metal is a neurotoxin which can cause severe, permanent brain damage to unborn babies.

In addition, the study found that mercury levels increased in 10 of 11 fish species studied in 2009 and then again in 2012.

The Peruvian government has tried but not succeeded in putting a stop to illegal mining.

Unlike formal mining that occurs in the Andean highlands, the mining in Madre de Dios mainly involves scouring riverbeds and alluvial deposits for flecks of gold that adhere to mercury in a crude amalgamation process.

About 35 metric tons of mercury is dispersed into the air and waters of the region annually, exposing not just miners to the metal but also city dwellers in Puerto Maldonado, the regional capital that is one of the urban areas where mercury vapour is released by “gold shops” that buy and refine gold.

Photo: a creative commons Attribution(2.0) from's Flickr photo stream

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