LIMA, Peru – People who live in the Amazon are getting sick at an alarmingly high rate. Researchers from the U.S., Canada and Brazil are trying to pinpoint exactly why this is.
Since the early 2000s, the Amazon has become a popular place for illegal mining. The area has also seen an increase in chronic diseases like anemia and high blood pressure, as well as illnesses like malaria.
American oil companies fund studies in the Amazon to report on natural resource opportunities. One particular study, however, was to analyze gold mining in its relation to the health of people working in and living around gold mines.
In charge of this study is Ernesto Ortiz and his colleagues from Duke University. They are trying to record the health histories of 5,000 people in the Amazon, as well as test for viruses and chronic diseases. Within two to four hours, Ortiz runs tests, documents past illnesses, and inquires about the people’s education, income, and diet. He collects blood, urine, and hair samples in order to test for mercury levels.
Illegal mining processes produce mercury that easily morphs into methyl mercury in nature, which is toxic to humans. Exposure causes delayed development in children, fatigue, headaches, and vomiting.
Previous research has found that mercury from the mines travels hundreds of miles down the river and accumulates in fish, soil, and plants. Fish is the main source of protein for residents and people grow crops in the soil.
Research from the University of Idaho points out that the Amazon basin is hydro-graphically able to turn a lot of mercury into methyl mercury. Reportedly, 200-420 tons of mercury build up in the environment each year. The Amazon is a prime location for the spread of the toxic element since there are so many biological life forms that can transition it up and down the food chain.
Since mercury cannot be detected by the naked eye, it is incredibly difficult to identify how much mercury people are being exposed to and whether it is significantly adding to the increase of poor health in the area.
“If [a child]is exposed to mercury for a long time, you get problems with brain development. They won’t be able to have good attention, to learn things. Sometimes they won’t even be able to finish school,” explains Ortiz.
This is a huge setback for communities that are trying to break the cycle of poverty. Education offers opportunities crucial for life improvement. Mining also creates trenches which are perfect breeding spots for mosquitoes carrying deadly diseases. The study is tremendously important in revealing health hazards. People need to be able to protect themselves, and their children, from being exposed to toxic levels of mercury.
Dr. Fernando Medieta operates a meager hospital, as well as supervises fifteen other very sparse clinics in villages scattered throughout the jungle. Many are only reachable by boat and the furthest one is a four day trip. Half of the children in these communities are malnourished and the risks for water and mosquito-borne illnesses are high. Medieta is grateful that the study can provide the data about residents that would be too time-consuming and costly for him to retrieve by himself.
Other researchers, like those from Canada and Brazil, blame high levels of mercury on erosion, deforestation, and poor farming practices. A Canadian research team collaborates with Amazonian communities to make changes to their lifestyle in order to lessen how much mercury they consume as well as to keep more mercury from accumulating in the environment. They run yearly soil and water tests and report on mercury levels measured in different species of fish. Villagers are given check-ups to scan for problems with dexterity, coordination, vision, and childhood development.
– Lillian Sickler
Sources: NPR, MIT, Mangal, University of Idaho 1, University of Idaho 2, Canada’s International Development Research Centre 1, Canada’s International Development Research Centre 2, Mongabay