Researchers find mercury contamination in mining in the Amazon

Researchers wanted to make information and tests on mercury contamination available to women who live and work in Vila Nova, a mining site in the state of Amapá. On the first day, part of the testing was done. In the second, threats came.

The collection team, made up only of women, managed to make about 17 collections of hair from residents. They then spent the night in Pedra Branca do Amapari, before returning to the village and continuing their work.

The next morning, the attendant at a gas station in the city warned that there would be a message on the road for them. Near the access to the community, there was an abandoned pickup truck on fire.

“They got the message”, says Decio Yokota, coordinator of information management at Iepé (Institute for Research and Indigenous Training), one of the entities that supported the project. “They understood that they were not supposed to come back.”

The research was developed by Ipen (English acronym for International Pollutant Elimination Network) and by Bri (Biodiversity Research Institute).


According to Yokota, they had already been approached by male miners, possibly who were running the illegal miners in the area, who questioned them about what they were doing. The case occurred at the end of 2019, and the last step of the idea, which would be to show the results to the women tested, has not yet been completed due to the pandemic. The results were released this year.

The representative of Iepé claims that the 34 women from the garimpo —which, according to him, included the wives of garimpeiros , prospectors in fact and women who survive from prostitution in the place — analyzed in the research showed interest in testing themselves.

With the samples collected and with some more obtained in the surroundings of the village, it was possible to detect contamination by mercury, both among women working in the mines and among others who do not work directly in the activity.

According to him, the contamination that occurs directly in the mines, by handling mercury to separate the gold, it is acute, violent and extremely dangerous. “But if the person leaves the mine, the mercury leaves the body”, he says.

Another serious problem is the contamination by methylmercury (44 times more toxic than mercury in metal), through ingestion of contaminated fish.

The WHO (World Health Organization) points out that fish consumption is, in general, the main form of human exposure to mercury (actually methylmercury).

All women in the region of Vila Nova who participated in the survey consumed fish at least once a week. The greater the consumption of the animal, the higher the levels of mercury found.

Mercury contamination can affect the brain, kidneys and liver, according to the Observatório do Mercury, a platform created by WWF-Brasil, by Fiocruz, and by Cincia (Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica), in addition to other institutions. Contamination can also affect fetuses.

The risk to pregnant women and their children, even led the study by Iepé to focus on women of childbearing age, from 20 to 34 years, according to the research methodology.

A study published last year in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, with data collected in previous years in the Peruvian Amazon, for example, indicates higher levels of mercury contamination in communities classified as indigenous or native, regardless of the proximity to mining activity.

In addition to this study, several others have already shown methylmercury contamination in Brazilian indigenous communities. Again, the role of gold mining in the environmental contamination that affects fish —essential food for several communities of Indians and riverside dwellers—is identified as responsible for the problem.

Researches by 2016, 2019 and 2020, from Isa (Socio-environmental Institute), from the Sergio Arouca National School of Public Health (ENSP/Fiocruz), and from Fiocruz and WWF- Brazil had already been detecting mercury contamination in the Yanomami and Munduruku peoples.

At the end of 2021, Funai (National Indian Foundation) prohibited Fiocruz from carrying out a study on contamination by mercury and the impact of illegal mining within Yanomami land. The justification was the ordinance 34, of 17 of March 2020, which concerns to preventing Covid contamination.

President Jair Bolsonaro (PL) is a public advocate for legalizing mining on indigenous lands. In 2021, he visited indigenous lands neighboring the Yanomami twice and interacted without a mask with Indians.

In addition to Brazil, the study, which received financial support from the Swedish government and from other donors, has also been developed in Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia.

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