A study conducted in the State of Pará, Brazil, has concluded that 75.6% of the inhabitants of Santarém, an urban city with over three hundred thousand inhabitants, have some degree of mercury poisoning.
Data was collected from a sample population in the city and 75.6% of the participants were observed to have concentrations of the metal above the maximum tolerance levels indicated by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The study, from the Federal University of West Pará – Ufopa -, indicates that this result is due to the consumption of fish from the Tapajós river, contaminated by illegal mining in the region.
Mercury exposure can cause serious health issues and even death. The heavy metal is highly toxic, even in small amounts, and can disrupt the immune system, nervous system, respiratory system, kidneys and liver. It can also provoke neurological disorders such as memory loss and motor dysfunction.
In Brazil, mercury is commonly used by illegal mining operations to extract gold. This has been a major source of pollution and a public health concern throughout the Amazon region, contaminating river basins as well as the wildlife and human populations dependent on them.
This issue has been aggravated by the policies of Brazil’s federal government. In February, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, signed an executive decree providing incentives and structure for irregular mining in the Amazon. The decree established the creation of a “Support Program for the Development of Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining”.
This has been seen as an attempt to endorse and encourage illegal mining operations in the region as well as to serve the interests of the businessmen financing them.
Nearby populations and habitats are not the only ones severely affected by illegal mining, a practice that has grown much more commonplace under Bolsonaro’s regime. The miners themselves are known to work in conditions similar to slavery and face extreme health risks due to the intense exposure to mercury.
A study conducted in 2021 by the NGO MapBiomas found that Garimpo – a Brazilian term used to denote poorly controlled or illegal mining activity – has already surpassed industrial mining in the amount of land used. Also according to the study, 72.5% of all mining in Brazil took place within the Amazon in 2020.