Mercury, bound to gold, is burned off into the atmosphere after its use. Photo from amazonaid.org

Last week, the Peruvian national comptroller urged the regional government of Madre de Dios to provide residents with medical care in cases of unacceptable levels of mercury poisoning.  They warned that failing to act to enforce preventive measures and provide adequate medical attention has put many lives at risk, especially children and young women who are highly vulnerable to the toxic effects of mercury.

In particular, they noted extremely high rates of mercury poisoning in Huepetuhe, the district with the highest environmental degradation in the Madre de Dios region as a result of large-scale gold mining, featured in the film Amazon Gold. Andina news agency reports that 18 residents of the Huepetuhe district were found to have unacceptable levels of mercury in their urine samples, including 12 children and six adults. According to Andina, the 12 minors had 77 times the acceptable level of mercury present in their system. The adults had around six times the acceptable amount.

In 2009, the Carnegie Institution for Science released a study led by AAF board member Luis Fernandez, determining that many of the consumed fish species sold in markets of Madre de Dios contained dangerously high levels of mercury.  Earlier this year, a second study revealed that a majority of the people tested for mercury exposure in Puerto Maldonado had extremely elevated levels of mercury in their bodies.  In addition, it was found that people living within indigenous communities in Madre de Dios region tend to have even greater levels of mercury in their bodies than individuals from non-indigenous communities, with as much as five times the acceptable limits of mercury in their system.

The highly toxic metal is used to extract gold in the mining process, and illicit and unregulated gold mining is the largest single source of mercury released into the environment worldwide.  Mercury poisoning is a grave threat to public health, as it can cause severe damage to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems.  Prolonged exposure to the metal can be fatal, especially if medical attention is not provided to the affected individuals.

The Amazon Aid Foundation is currently working with a coalition of expert scientists, government officials, and NGOs to develop solutions and strategies for preventing and mitigating the effects of mercury released by gold mining in the region.