By Mason Quah
A STRETCH of pristine Peruvian rainforest now boasts the world’s highest atmospheric mercury levels due to illegal gold mining operations.
Jacqueline Gerson, PhD, who conducted the research warns that the environmental damage could persist for centuries and endanger indigenous populations across the region.
She said: “Mercury can persist for centuries within soils. We are still seeing the impacts of Hg contamination from the California gold rush in soils and birds.”
The methods used here mirror those of the California goldrush in the mid 1800s.
Mercury is used to bind gold particles trapped in soil or river sediment and then the mixture is boiled until the gold separates.
Some of the mercury evaporates into the air, where it was detected by the Los Amigos Biological Station.
The researchers found one region of forest had the highest levels of mercury ever recorded, surpassing industrial mercury mining operations.
The mercury is absorbed by the plants and animals, concentrating higher up in the food chain and poisoning humans.
The researchers measure the levels of mercury in animals by examining the plumage of a variety of local birds.
Some of the birds had 12 times more mercury in their feathers, which could severely cut their fertility and be passed on to anything that ate them.
Gerson explained: “We know from previous studies in this region that people (especially indigenous communities) do have elevated levels of mercury in these areas.
“Some of these indigenous communities are even located far from areas of gold mining.”
The Minamata Convention on Mercury, signed by Peru in 2013, forbids the use of mercury in mining operations but this has not stopped illegal operations using black market mercury.
There are capture devices that can capture the aerosol mercury before it enters the atmosphere as well as methods that do not require the poisonous metal, but these are more expensive and technical.
“The best solution is to continue to protect these forests,” says Gerson.
Areas of the forest with a thicker forest canopy were able to lock in more of the mercury emissions, preventing it from spreading into the wider ecosystem.
“Tropical rainforests serve a variety of ecosystem services, trapping Hg is now an additional service that they do: They are preventing the Hg from being released from forests into nearby aquatic ecosystems, where Hg is even more likely to enter into the foodweb and cause harm.
“Other than that, the other solutions involve reducing future Hg use to prevent additional Hg from entering these forests.”
Professor of Biology Emily Bernhardt notes that this is not something unique to these communities, many of which are economically deprived and depend on the income from gold extraction.
She said: “A very similar thing, with very similar methods, has already been done throughout many of the wealthy countries of the world where gold was available: The demand is just pushing mining further into new areas.”
Gold, rather than just being pretty to look at, is a vital resource to the electronics and technology industries.
Research by the World Gold Council noted that demand in the technology sector grew by 9 per cent over 2021, peaking at 330 tons.
Despite this Bernhardt noted the vital importance of protecting these stretches of rainforest.
“These forests are doing an enormous service by capturing a huge fraction of this mercury and preventing it from getting to the global atmospheric pool.
“It makes it even more important that they not be burned or deforested, because that would release all that mercury back to the atmosphere.”
Gerson concludes by explaining that the issue is complex, and can’t be solved by any sort of guns blazing crackdown that would leave the communities destitute.
“There’s a reason why people are mining” she said.
“It’s an important livelihood, so the goal is not to get rid of mining completely, nor is it for people like us coming in from the United States to be the ones imposing solutions or determining what should happen.”
The Ministry of Energy and Mines of Peru was contacted for comment.
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