Illegal mines in Brazil leaving behind legacy of mercury poisoning for natives

Over 90 percent of indigenous communities in Brazil’s Amazon have been affected by mercury poisoning, according to a new study.

The joint study conducted by the Brazilian health foundation Fiocruz, the Hutukara Yanomami Association, the Yekuana Association, and the Brazilian NGO Socio-Environmental Institute tested hair samples from indigenous people in 19 different communities in one region of Brazil’s Amazon.

The results were stunning: up to 90 percent of them had been severely affected by mercury poisoning, according to researchers.

After alarmingly high levels of mercury were found in water and food sources of various indigenous people in the region, the study’s authors decided to take a closer look.

The mercury is believed to be present due to the high levels of illegal gold mines in the area. Mercury is a byproduct of mining, mainly used in smaller, “artisanal” mining as part of the amalgamation process which binds the gold in ore to mercury in order to extract it, then burning off the mercury.

The Amazonas state government in Brazil has allowed the use of mercury in mining since 2005, but is under increasing pressure to prohibit the practice, given the destructive nature of it. But owing to the fact that gold prices are continuing to rise, the use of mercury is too, as it is a cheap means of extracting gold, sometimes the only method small miners can afford.

But Daniel Nava, Amazonas’s secretary of state for mining, geodiversity and water resources, says that new regulations implemented in June by the Environmental Council of Amazonas should mitigate some of the current problems by requiring miners to take precautions and use various methods to reduce how much mercury is released in the mining process.

For starters, by using simple equipment called crucibles or retorts, the miners could dramatically reduce the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere, according to Nava. The regulations also require all miners to take a course on good environmental practices.

Of course, one has to wonder what good new regulations will do with people who are mining in the are illegally to begin with.

And with so much mercury already present and such horrific, irreversible consequences of mercury toxicity–including psychomotor problems, memory loss, gingivitis, kidney problems, muscular tremors, and even death–many are calling for a total ban on the practice. With no little justification.

With so few wild areas left in the world it always seems like it is human greed that takes another and another, plucking them from our collective dreamtime like dead, gray pearls.

And we never seem to wake up until it’s too late.

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