One Thousand Brazilian Babies Poisoned by Mercury

By André Muggiati

ITAITUBA, Brazil, May 20, 2003 (ENS) - The Evandro Chagas Research Institute, linked to the Brazilian Health Ministry, has found high levels of mercury contamination among 60 percent of the newborns at three hospitals in the city of Itaituba, in the Brazilian Amazon.

The institute tested the blood of all the 1,666 babies born during 2002 in the three hospitals of the city and found 1,000 of them to be contaminated. Some of the children had 80 parts per million (ppm) of mercury in the blood. The highest acceptable level, according to the World Health Organization, is 30 ppm.

The contamination is due to gold mining activities that took place in the rivers of the region during the 1980s. In those years, Itaituba became the biggest gold producer in the world. Most of the gold is gone now, but the problems remain.

river

The city of Itaituba on the Tapajós River (Photo courtesy Pedro Jacobi)
The National Department for Mineral Production estimates that around 600 tons of mercury was thrown into the Tapajós River, one of the biggest tributaries of the Amazon River, over a 10 year period.

This mercury enters into the circle of life, through the small species like algae and vegetarian fishes. These end up feeding some carnivorous species which are very popular in the Amazon menu, like tucunaré and pirarucu.

Other studies have shown that the level of mercury in these species makes them unsuitable for human consumption. When they are consumed by humans, the mercury in their bodies is ingested but not excreted, and higher and higher concentrations accumulate in the blood. Then, it passes from mother to child.

In addition, contamination by mercury may cause irritation of skin and eyes, neurological problems, joint pains, fainting, loss of appetite, diarrhea and learning deficiencies in children. According to scientists at the institute, some of the effects of the metal on human health have yet to be discovered by science.

The study by Evandro Chagas Institute, a reference center for tropical diseases, is the first of such detail conducted in mining areas of the Amazon forest.

In the future, researchers at the institute intend to keep studying 200 of the contaminated children to track the long term effects of the mercury's presence in their bodies.

As they grow older the contamination in their bodies could become even worse, as the children will stay in the area and suffer further exposure to the metal through their food.

lab

In the laboratory at the Evandro Chagas Institute which develops studies and scientific research in the fields of biological sciences, the environment and tropical medicine. (Photo courtesy Evandro Chagas Institute)
On the other hand, if there is no further exposure, the levels of mercury in their organisms tend to be reduced, because of excretion through the hair, fingernails and urine.

The mothers of the subject babies have also been examined by researchers. The result of their evaluation has yet to be published, but in some cases the mercury contamination was also dramatic. Some of the victims were found to have as much as 177 ppm of mercury in their blood.

The municipality of Itaituba, a city located in the southeastern part of Para State, said it already has knowledge of the problem, but officials still do not know what measures could be taken to minimize the future effects of mercury contamination.

The mercury, a liquid metal also known as quicksilver, is usually used in mining areas, to isolate the gold from the ore in which it occurs. There is no control on its utilization, and there are many communities and cities of the Brazilian Amazon affected by this indiscriminate use.

One known mercury victim is the present Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva, a former senator. Born in the Amazon Region, Silva lived in a small community of rubber tappers during her childhood and teenage years, when she probably was contaminated. She discovered the sickness in 1992, when she experienced strong headaches and weak appetite. This contamination sometimes forces Silva to be absent from public meetings for health treatments.