ACA and EPA Partner to Reduce Mercury Pollution in the Amazon

December 22, 2008

Gold mining in the Amazon can devastate riverside forests and human health. Artisanal gold miners, often from poor migrant communities, are lured to Madre de Dios, Peru by the dream of easy riches. The state is the most active alluvial gold mining region in Peru, producing between 50 and 100 tons of gold annually.

Unfortunately, that gold rarely enriches the artisanal gold-mining communities, who are sometimes entrapped by mounting debt for equipment, loans, and concession rentals. Instead, they find themselves locked in an endless cycle of deforestation, mercury poisoning, and poverty.

Artisanal miners extract gold from river bottoms and edges using dangerous techniques that expose them to high levels of mercury. Liquid mercury is used to amalgamate the gold, both at the site of extraction and later in shops or in homes where gold is boiled with mercury to form larger nuggets to sell to urban gold traders. Often, the mercury vapors waft out of cooking pots while the whole family looks on. The mercury can poison children and adults alike, causing extreme swelling, hair loss, weakened muscles, kidney dysfunction, insomnia, and memory impairment. In the environment, mercury is likely to reduce reproduction and cause birth defects in wildlife.

Over the last year, ACA has partnered with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to produce new scientific data about mining-related mercury emissions in Madre de Dios and their impact on human health. In December 2007, USAID invited ACA to participate in a meeting with the EPA concerning mercury contamination, and a partnership was born. In May, ACA hosted EPA researchers at our project office in Puerto Maldonado, led tours of mining communities and gold shops, and introduced the EPA team to regional government representatives. On field trips, EPA researchers measured mercury levels that far exceeded any they had encountered at their other project sites, in countries as diverse as Brazil and Senegal. In the fall, the EPA team returned at the invitation of Madre de Dios regional government to install a pilot mercury-capture device that reduced mercury emissions from the amalgamation process by 90%.

Recently, these findings have sparked a dynamic conservation initiative, supported by ACA, the EPA, Argonne National Laboratory, Stanford University, and the Dirección Regional de Energia y Minas – Madre de Dios, to:

  • Discover how much mercury is building up in the environment around gold mining communities by testing samples from plants, fish, soils, air, and people;
  • Provide scientific data about mercury contamination to local decision makers; and
  • Develop methods to limit these communities’ exposure to mercury.

One cornerstone of the initiative will be a mercury testing program for aquatic ecosystems. EPA-affiliated researchers plan to test the mercury levels of a variety of common food fish for sale at local markets, transcribing the results into a simple red-yellow-green guide for safe consumption, patterned on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s popular Seafood Watch guide. As ACA seed-grant recipient Luis Fernandez noted, “Fish consumption is the most important pathway for human methylmercury contamination.”

Over the next year, look to ACA’s website to track progress on this exciting initiative and learn more about how we’re making conservation an attainable goal for local communities.

Figure from: “Mercury in the Environment” USGS Fact Sheet 146-00 (October 2000).