Gold rush mercury threatens residents

LIMA, Peru — A study of mercury contamination in a southeastern Peruvian jungle area ravaged by illegal gold mining 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 study by the Carnegie Institution for Science calls the contamination a “grave and mounting threat to public health.”

Mercury is a byproduct of artisanal gold mining as practiced by the estimated 40,000 miners in the Madre de Dios region.

In discussing the overall human impact, the newly released study said that the population segment most vulnerable to mercury poisoning had the highest average mercury levels: women of childbearing age. As a neurotoxin, mercury can cause severe, permanent brain damage to an unborn child.

The study, led by Luis E. Fernandez of Stanford University, said mercury levels increased in 10 of 11 fish species studied in 2009 and then again in 2012.

Peru is the world’s fifth largest gold producer, and the government has made scant progress trying to halt the illegal mining and formalize the miners.

Unlike formal mining that occurs in the Andean highlands, the mining in Madre de Dios consists chiefly of 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 vapor is released by “gold shops” that buy and refine gold.

In addition to the mercury contamination, the mining has denuded some 70 square miles (18,000 hectares) of formerly virgin rainforest in one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions.

More in Local News

Mill Creek councilman no longer lives in city, panel finds

The Canvassing Board determined Sean Kelly is not eligible to vote there.

A Democrat and ex-Republican team up to end two-party politics

Brian Baird and Chris Vance unveil a new organization called Washington Independents.

The beavers weren’t happy, either, about Mill Creek flooding

A tree fell on their dam, sending a rush of water into a neighborhood near Jackson High School.

Two windsurfers rescued from Port Susan near Kayak Point

The men had failed to return to shore during Sunday’s windstorm.

Herald photos of the week

A weekly collection of The Herald’s best images by staff photographers and… Continue reading

Stranger offered candy to student walking home from school

The Granite Falls School District is warning families about… Continue reading

Coming together as family

Special-needs students and teachers at the Transition Center cooked up a Thanksgiving feast.

Lynnwood’s property tax promise to homeowners sort of true

They were told consolidation of fire departments would save, but new rates likely will be more.

Woman who died in 5-car crash identified

A car driven by Susan E. Sill rear-ended another vehicle Wednesday on Smokey Point Boulevard.

Most Read