MAC/20: Mines and Communities

1,000 babies contaminated by mercury in Para, Brazil

Published by MAC on 2003-05-16

1,000 babies contaminated by mercury in Para, Brazil

Source: Correio Braziliense

May 16 2003

Mercury, which is used in gold mines, has contaminated rivers, poisoned fish stocks and now threatens the population. Research shows that 60%of children born in three hospitals in Itaituba have high levels of mercury contamination

The muncipality of Itaituba in the west of Para used to be one of the world leader''s in gold production. Today, the industry has left a sad legacy for a new generation of children born in the region. Research carried out by the Evandro Chagas Institute, part of the Ministry of Health, on 1,666 babies born in three maternity hospitals in Itaituba has shown that 60% of the children have a higher level of mercury than is recommended by the World Health Organisation.

In the long term, these children could develop a series of health problems, ranging from skin irritation, loss of appetite and diarrhaea. Mercury affects the central nervous system, causing anxiety, memory loss, irritability, insomia and tremors. According to Dr. Arthur Martins Lopes, of the University of Sao Paulo, scientists still do not fully understand the effects of mercury contamination on the human organism.

The use of mercury in mining areas is not subject to any controls. This research is the first to reveal the full extent of mercury contamination among human populations in mining areas. During 2002, blood samples were taken from all babies born in three maternity hospitals in Itaituba. Hair samples were also colleted from the mothers. "The result was surprising due to the quantity of children presenting high levels of mercury in their organisms", said virologist, Elisabeth Santos, head of the Evandro Chagas Institute''s Environment Section. The research has still not been concluded. Some of the women presented mercury levels of 117 parts per billion. The level recommended by the World Health Organisation is just 30 ppb.

In the 1980s, mercury was heavily used in the mining process. The National Department of Mineral Production estimates that onver a period of ten years, some 600 tonnes of mercury were dumped in the Tapajos river. Despite the end of the gold boom, many mines in the region are still using mercury. Once in the river, the mercury is absorbed by fish which are eaten by the local population. Existing studies have already found high levels of mercury in fish in the region.

Housewife Maria Jose Costa Soares, 25, had a baby daughter last year in Itaituba''s Menino Jesus Hospital. The baby is now nine months old. Maria does not know how much mercury her child has in her body. "The doctors told me that Mariazinha has a lot of mercury in her blood. Here in Itaituba almost everyone has been contaminated. They say that the river is full of sick fish", she said. Her husband, Roberto Gonzalves, 33, worked in a gold mine twenty years ago. The development of around 200 infants will be accompanied by the researchers. Dr. Santos reiterated that the children are not ill at the moment and that the levels of mercury may increase or decrease over time depending on environmental conditions. "If they continue to eat contaminated fish, their situation will worsen", she explained.

The Secretary of Health of Itaituba, Amelia Ayako de Aranjo, said that the municipal government is aware of the mercury contamination and is awaiting the full results of the research. The most famous victim of mercury contamiantion is the Environment Minister, Marina Silva. The contamination causes joint pain, dizziness, fainting, tremors, kidney problems and hair loss. She believes that she was contaminated over 20 years ago, when she was a teenager.

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