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Environ Res. 1998 May;77(2):73-8.

Gold mining as a source of mercury exposure in the Brazilian Amazon.

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Laboratório de Radioisótopos Eduardo Penna Franca, Instituto de Biofísica Carlos Chagas Filho, CCS, UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, 21941-000, Brazil.


Amalgamation has been used for more than 4500 years in mining processes. Mercury has been extensively used in South America by Spanish colonizers for precious metal recovery. It is estimated that between 1550 and 1880, nearly 200,000 metric tonnes of mercury was released to the environment. During the present gold rush, Brazil is first in South America and second in the world in gold production (with 90% coming from informal mining or garimpos). At least 2000 tonnes of mercury has been released to the environment in the present gold rush. From the mid 1980s, environmental research has been carried out in impacted Amazon rivers, later followed by human exposure studies. The river basins studied were the Tapajós, Madeira, and Negro, but also some man-made reservoirs and areas in central Brazil. The analyses mainly involved sediments, soil, air, fish, human hair, and urine. The results show high variability, perhaps related to biological diversity, biogeochemical differences in the river basins, and seasonal changes. High mercury values also occur in some areas with no known history of gold mining. The results available document a considerable impact on environmental mercury concentrations and frequent occurrence of human exposure levels that may lead to adverse health effects.

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