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MEI Online: Environmental Issues: Latest News: May 23rd 2003

:: Mercury Contamination  

Brazil's Evandro Chagas Research Institute, a tropical disease centre, has found high levels of mercury contamination among 60% of newborn babies at three hospitals in the city of Itaituba, in the Amazon. The institute tested the blood of all the 1,666 babies born during 2002 in the three hospitals of the city and found 1,000 of them to be contaminated. Some had 80 ppm of mercury in the blood. The World Health Organisation specifies a highest acceptable level of 30 ppm. The contamination is stated to be a result of gold mining in and around the rivers of the region during the 1980s. In those years, the Itaituba area was a major gold producer. Most mining has now ceased, but problems remain. The Brazilian Government department covering mineral production estimates that around 600 t of mercury was deposited in the Tapajós River, one of the biggest tributaries of the Amazon River, over a 10 year period. Of course this goes into the food chain through various fish.

However, Mercury in Amazonia: Assessing the role of artisanal gold, an article published in MEM November 2002, suggested that gold mining was perhaps not the main reason for mercury contamination in the water and fishes of Amazonia. That article stated that there is "increasing evidence for a significant reserve of mercury in Amazonian soils that far exceeds the amount used by artisanal miners over the last 20 years." That same issue also considered Mercury management in small-scale mining. Nevertheless, Evandro Chagas Institute study is reported to be the first of such detail conducted in mining areas of the Amazon forest. Researchers at the institute intend to continue studying 200 of the children to track the long term effects of the mercury's presence in their bodies.



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