Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Mar 14;14(3):302. doi: 10.3390/ijerph14030302.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) has been an important source of income for communities in the Madre de Dios River Basin in Peru for hundreds of years. However, in recent decades, the scale of ASGM activities in the region has increased dramatically, and exposures to a variety of occupational and environmental hazards related to ASGM, including mercury, are becoming more widespread. The aims of our study were to: (1) examine patterns in the total hair mercury level of human participants in several communities in the region and compare these results to the 2.2 µg/g total hair mercury level equivalent to the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee of Food Additives (JECFA)’s Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake (PTWI); and (2), to measure the mercury levels of paco (Piaractus brachypomus) fish raised in local aquaculture ponds, in order to compare these levels to the EPA Fish Tissue Residue Criterion of 0.3 µg Hg/g fish (wet weight). We collected hair samples from 80 participants in four communities (one control and three where ASGM activities occurred) in the region, and collected 111 samples from fish raised in 24 local aquaculture farms. We then analyzed the samples for total mercury. Total mercury levels in hair were statistically significantly higher in the mining communities than in the control community, and increased with increasing geodesic distance from the Madre de Dios headwaters, did not differ by sex, and frequently exceeded the reference level. Regression analyses indicated that higher hair mercury levels were associated with residence in ASGM communities. The analysis of paco fish samples found no samples that exceeded the EPA tissue residue criterion. Collectively, these results align with other recent studies showing that ASGM activities are associated with elevated human mercury exposure. The fish farmed through the relatively new process of aquaculture in ASGM areas appeared to have little potential to contribute to human mercury exposure. More research is needed on human health risks associated with ASGM to discern occupational, residential, and nutritional exposure, especially through tracking temporal changes in mercury levels as fish ponds age, and assessing levels in different farmed fish species. Additionally, research is needed to definitively determine that elevated mercury levels in humans and fish result from the elemental mercury from mining, rather than from a different source, such as the mercury released from soil erosion during deforestation events from mining or other activities.