A population-based mercury exposure assessment near an artisanal and small-scale gold mining site in the Peruvian Amazon


Human exposure to mercury is a leading public health problem. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is a major source of global mercury emissions. Although occupational mercury exposure to miners (via mercury vapor inhalation) is known, chronic mercury exposure to nearby residents that are not miners (via mercury-contaminated fish consumption) is poorly characterized. We conducted a population-based mercury exposure assessment in 23 communities (19 rural, 4 urban) around the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, which is bordered on the east by heavy ASGM activity. We measured total mercury in hair (N = 2083) and blood (N = 476) from March-June 2015 and performed follow-up measurements (N = 723 hair and N = 290 blood) from February-April 2016. Mercury exposure risk was highest in communities classified as indigenous, or native, regardless of proximity to mining activity. Residence in a native community (vs. non-native) was associated with mercury levels 1.9 times higher in hair (median native 3.5 ppm vs. median non-native 1.4 ppm total mercury) and 1.6 times higher in blood (median native 7.4 ng/mL vs median non-native 3.2 ng/mL total mercury). Unexpectedly, proximity to mining was not associated with exposure risk. These findings challenge common assumptions about mercury exposure patterns and emphasize the importance of population-representative studies to identify high risk sub-populations.

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Fig. 1: Map of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve study site.
Fig. 2: Violin plots of total hair mercury and total blood mercury at baseline by study community.
Fig. 3: Temporal variability in total hair and total blood mercury levels by community.
Fig. 4: Intra-cluster correlations for baseline total hair mercury levels for households by community.

Data availability

Data on legal mining concessions leased by the Peruvian government are available from the Ministry of Energy and Mining of Peru (http://www.minem.gob.pe/). Data on recent mining activity are available on request from Matthew Finer of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (maaproject.org). Mercury exposure and epidemiological datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available, due to restrictions for protection of human subjects, but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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The authors acknowledge local field workers and Jean-Pierre Muro of MEDLAB-Peru for assistance in data collection, as well as support from the Madre de Dios Regional Health Directorate (DIRESA), particularly Drs Emperatriz Morales, Elvis Rojas and Fernando Mendieta. Support for this study was provided by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (CRN 3034), Bass Connections at Duke University, and Hunt Oil Peru LLC (HOEP-QEHSS-140003).


This study was funded by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (CRN 3034), Bass Connections at Duke University, Hunt Oil Peru LLC (HOEP-QEHSS-140003), and the Duke University Superfund Research Center (P42ES010356.) The study funders had no roles in study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, or manuscript preparation. The corresponding author had full access to all study data and had final responsibility for the decision to submit for publication.

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CW, WKP, EO and HH-K conceived research questions. CW oversaw data analysis, created figures (except Fig. 1) and tables, and wrote the manuscript. JG analyzed data. AJB created Fig. 1. EO, AMM, and AJB coordinated data collection in the field. SD created mining proximity variables. JH oversaw total blood mercury measurements at Research Triangle Institute. PB and JH-G measured total hair mercury in the laboratory of HH-K. WKP, HH-K, EO, AJB, and AMM designed the study. WKP obtained funding and oversaw the study.

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Correspondence to Caren Weinhouse.

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Weinhouse, C., Gallis, J.A., Ortiz, E. et al. A population-based mercury exposure assessment near an artisanal and small-scale gold mining site in the Peruvian Amazon. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-020-0234-2

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