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Environmental Fate Of Mercury From Gold Mining In The Brazilian Amazon

W. C. Pfeiffer, L. D. Lacerda, W. Salomons, O. Malm

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Large quantities of mercury are being released into the waters of the Amazon and its tributaries by gold-mining activities. Large releases are also taking place into the air. In this paper, the fate of mercury released to the environment by gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon is reviewed. Mercury contamination is presently widespread in the Amazon region. A major source of mercury in the local environment is the burning of the gold–mercury amalgam, which releases from 30 to 150 t of mercury yearly into the Amazon atmosphere. Air samples collected close to mining sites showed extremely high mercury concentrations (up to 7.5 μg∙m−3). Inside gold-dealers' shops or in amalgam-burning stations, ambient air concentrations may reach 100 μg∙m−3. A secondary source is the discharge of metallic mercury into rivers during the amalgamation process. Sediment concentrations frequently range from 0.3 to 3.0 μg∙g−1 in contaminated sites. However, values as high as 19.8 μg∙g−1 have been reported in some sites. Waters of many rivers are also contaminated, although reliable data on dissolved mercury concentrations are still lacking. Local carnivorous fishes typically show mercury concentrations higher than 1.0 μg∙g wet wt.−1 in contaminated sites and methyl mercury represents over 90% of the total content. Human groups with fish-based diets frequently show evidence of mercury contamination, with high mercury concentrations in hair (up to 70 μg∙g−1). However, a reliable epidemiological study on the affected population still has to be carried out.Key words: mercury, gold mining, Amazon, sediments, aquatic biota, humans.