New WWF study: Health of Amazon population at risk due to dangerous mercury levels in fish from gold mining

Posted on 06 August 2020
illegal gold mining in Protected Area
© WWF-Brazil
Local populations in areas with small-scale artisanal gold mining are at serious risk of being poisoned by mercury, due to their habit of eating fish. A new, disturbing study in the Brazilian province of Amapá, which forms part of the Guianas shield, showed that all consumed fish in this area had levels of mercury. Almost one third contained even dangerous levels, as it exceeded the mercury threshold for human consumption recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Even more worrying is the fact that especially the analyzed carnivorous fish were unfit for human consumption. These are the species that local and indigenous population prefer to catch for their meals and depend on for their protein. Carnivorous species such as the bicuda , tucanare peacock bass and anjumara were most contaminated. As predators, carnivorous fish eat other freshwater species that contain mercury. This toxin accumulates in their body throughout their life increasing to very high levels. When eaten constantly these fish pose a serious health risk for humans.

Health concern
Mercury is used in the gold purification process by small-scale artisanal miners – contributing around 71 percent of all mercury emissions each year. Irresponsible use mercury leads to large quantities of the toxin being spilt in the environment that ends up in rivers and streams. According to the WHO mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. The toxin can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems severely, as well as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. Pregnant women who are or have been exposed to mercury can transmit the toxins to their fetuses, which can impair the development of their nervous systems. Overall, mercury is estimated to alter the health conditions of over 1.5 million individuals across the Amazon basin. 
The study, conducted by different research institutions and WWF-Brazil, is the first with clear recommendations to reduce exposure to mercury through the consumption of fish in the State of Amapá. According to the researchers, the consumption of carnivorous fish species should not exceed 200 grams per week. The consumption of the four most contaminated fish species should only be eaten once a month.
 “The study provides compelling data on the level of destruction that gold mining is causing in the Amazon,” Marcelo Oliveira, conservation specialist at WWF-Brazil. “We were already aware of how much gold mining destroys the forest. Now, we have more evidence of how much it also destroys the health of people living in the forest. Gold consumers around the world need to understand that they are purchasing a metal that is threatening the lives of innocent people. Public authorities urgently need to assume their responsibility to guarantee food security for local populations, who traditionally depend on fish as the main source of protein.”
Guianas Shield ecoregion
Irresponsible gold mining has expanded significantly in the Amazon over the past two decades and has become one of the main causes of deforestation and habitat degradation, particularly in the Guiana Shield ecoregion, which covers Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, Venezuela and the Brazilian states of Roraima, Amapá and Pará. The devastation caused by gold mining has exacerbated by the global increase in the price of gold. This boosted the expansion of illegal activities in the Amazon and further threatens the environment and human rights of local communities.
illegal gold mining in Protected Area
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