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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Amazon: Gold Out, Mercury In

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty reports from the Brazilian Amazon on the poisoning of the region's rivers with mercury. Prospectors use mercury to extract gold from the rivers' sediments. Thousands of tons of the toxic heavy metal have been released into the environment and it’s beginning to work its way into the food chain.


CURWOOD: The Amazon River and its tributaries carry a fifth of the world's fresh water. They also carry gold, and gold prospectors have rushed to the Amazon in recent years. They've pulled millions of dollars out of the river's sediments, but in its place, they've left thousands of tons of mercury, the deadly poisonous metal used in processing gold. Now some ecologists believe mercury poisoning could pose as great a threat to the area as deforestation.

We sent Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty to the Amazon city of Santarem, in Brazil's richest gold producing area. He filed this report.

(Sound of man trying to talk, fade under)

CARTY: Manuel Perreira looks like my father. That may be too personal a way to describe this 68-year-old man sitting in front of me, but Manuel looks like he suffered a stroke, like my father did. He's a limp figure, with trembling hands, a vacuous stare, and a tongue that rests limply on his lower lip.

But Manual Perreira was not struck down by a stroke. He's a victim of mercury poisoning. His wife, Alois, sits by his side with a tissue at hand to wipe away Manuel's drooling.

ALOIS (translated): He used to be strong -- a good worker. But when the symptoms of the sickness began to appear, he couldn't work any more. He had a grocery store here in Santarem. We had to close it, because he couldn't work any more.

CARTY: Manuel never knew what hit him. He used to spend a lot of time in a particular room in his second floor apartment. In a shop below, gold was processed. For six years, mercury fumes rose right into Manuel's apartment. Mercury damages the kidneys and the central nervous system, causes erratic behavior, and can also produce cancer and genetic mutations. Drug treatments can remove mercury from the blood, but often the damage is already done. That's what happened to Manuel.
Manuel's doctor is Fernando Branches. Six years ago, he identified the first case of mercury poisoning in the Amazon region. Three years ago he had twenty patients; last year, eighty-four. Now he's helping more than 130 victims of mercury poisoning. One was a young woman from a gold mine in town, whose stillborn child was found to have a large crevice in the head, exposing the brain. There have been few deaths so far, but Dr. Branches says that because mercury poisoning is a slow process, there may be tens of thousands of victims not yet identified.

BRANCHES: Most of the patients have headache, dizziness, palpitations, loss of memory, sexual problems, insomnia, nightmares -- many, many, many symptoms I have seen.
CARTY: Is there a cure for Manuel?
BRANCHES: There's no cure. Because his brain is very affected, he does not have a future.

(Sound of machinery)

CARTY: The mercury problem began in the gold rush of the late 70's, when up to a million prospectors, or garimpeiros, came to the Amazon. Many landed here in Santarem, and then headed up the Tapajos River to seek their fortunes. They gouged out riverbanks with pressure hoses, sucked up river bottoms with dredges -- they made Brazil the seventh largest gold producer in the world. In the process, their deforestation scarred the rainforest, their mining turned once-clear rivers into giant mudflows. But the most deadly legacy was unseen, until 1984, when a film crew from a Jacques Cousteau expedition visited gold panners on the Tapajos River.

(Sound and narration from Cousteau film:

"In a final effort to separate the gold grains and flakes from the sand, the garimpeiro scatters a few drops of mercury in the pan, and carefully stirs. Bonding easily with many minerals, mercury long has been used in the processing of gold, quickly and effectively trapping the fine yellow particles hidden in the pan." )

CARTY: The miners used two grams of mercury for every gram of gold. Most of them touched the mercury with their bare hands, unaware than it enters the bloodstream directly through the skin. Almost a third of all the mercury they used is lost in the rivers. The Cousteau expedition found traces of mercury in fish. That discovery sparked the interest of scientists in the city of Manaus, five hundred miles up the Amazon River from Santarem.

(Sound of scraping)

In a cluttered laboratory at the Brazilian government's National Institute for Amazonian Research, there's a rusty freezer where Bruce Forsberg sometimes keeps his lunch, and usually keeps a lot of dead fish.

FORSBERG: This is a tucunare or peacock bass, and this is -- what is that? -- a tambaqui. (Drawer opens ) Here's another one, we have piranhas, pretty good sized piranhas . . .
CARTY: Have you eaten piranha ?
FORSBERG: Oh yeah, very tasty.

CARTY: Bruce Forsberg is a rare breed -- a scientist with a sense of irony. Forsberg is an American marine biologist. For the past four years, he's been measuring the mercury content in fish, soil and human hair. Hair samples from residents of gold-mining towns register mercury levels up to 35 times above standards set by the World Health Organization. Forsberg says one of the ways mercury enters humans is through the consumption of fish. Fish that eat fish accumulate mercury, and migrations spread the toxin over a large area.

FORSBERG: What's important is not the concentration in the fish, but how much mercury you eat every day. Most of the people in the Amazon depend on fish for their protein; it's the principal protein source for most people in the Amazon. So if the fish do start to become contaminated and they're eating a lot of fish, it could be a problem -- a lot of people could be involved. We found some fish way downstream from the gold-mining areas, probably a thousand kilometers downstream, which have fairly high levels of contamination.

CARTY: What ecologists and doctors are worried about here is a tropical Minamata. Minamata is the Japanese city where people were poisoned by mercury -contaminated fish. Sixty years ago, a chemical company began dumping mercury into the Minamata Bay. Since then, a thousand people have died, and there are still several thousand victims with terrible deformities. Here in the Amazon, prospectors have already dumped two thousand tons of mercury -- three times the amount at Minamata, albeit over a much larger area. Bruce Forsberg says it's too early to call the Amazon poisoned, but he says scientists really have no idea of the ecological consequences of mercury on the world's largest genetic pool.

(Sound of prospectors)

A young man pours a handful of nuggets onto a weigh scale as if he was putting his life savings on a collection plate. This is a trading post in Santarem, where garimpeiros come to sell their gold to a middleman. After it is weighed, the mercury and gold amalgam is burned with an acetylene torch.

(Sound of torch)

The white smoke produced by this burning is what poisoned Manuel Perreira. Scientists say mercury fumes are the fastest means of poisoning. That's why the government is trying to get trading posts to install ventilators to capture and recycle the mercury. This shop has one, but the shop across the street doesn't, and they're almost nonexistent in the gold fields. But the risks don't matter to young prospectors like Pricio Argolo. Pricio is too busy trying to figure out how to carry the $1,800,000 cruzeiros stacked a foot high in front of him.

(Voice speaking Portuguese, fade under )

Pricio says it's been a good year, the best one yet. Life is better here than in the impoverished Northeast, where he was born. And as for mercury -- well, if you don't use mercury, you don't get as much gold.

(" . . . a va no poco.")

Pricio collects his money, about $800 dollars, and stuffs big wads of bills into his new blue-jean pockets, under his belt, into his shirt, finally into a plastic bag and then, checking at the door to see who is on the street, he disappears outside. The Brazilian government has a mixed view of these garimpeiros. In 1989, it told them to stop using mercury in gold mining. But the miners do earn this indebted country hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign exchange. Jose Lutzenberger, the former minister of the environment, also points out that most of the garimpeiros are just poor people trying to survive.

LUTZENBERGER: I would rather see the gold prospectors leave the forest, you see, but you cannot simply go and tell them get out -- these people are actually noble people, and the guys who go into the forest for gold prospecting, they don't go there because they like it. It's the hardest job in the world, you know, and then they survive one or two years of diseases and fights and assassination -- they usually come out poorer than before. Simply telling these people to come out -- well, we have to give them alternatives.

(Sound of traffic, fade under)

CARTY: But Brazil's government, racked by political and economic crises, has no alternatives for the miners already here, nor for the poor who arrive daily, seeking an escape from misery. There are ways to concentrate gold without mercury, but they are expensive for small prospectors. Jose Lutzenberger told me frankly the government has no control over mercury use. For example, in 1989, the year the government banned mercury, 210 tons of it illegally ended up in the gold fields. That mercury could be removed by dredging, as was done in Minamata. But that also costs a lot of money. Otherwise, even if mercury dumping is stopped now, it will take decades, perhaps a century, for the rivers to flush it out. In Santarem, I asked Alois , the wife of mercury victim Manuel Perreira, if she thought there was a solution. At first, she said she didn't know. Then she looked at her husband Manuel.

ALOIS (translated): For him there's no solution. The solution for him is when he dies. But they have to stop the indiscriminate use of mercury -- they have to stop it. Otherwise it will affect other people, it will hurt the young people.

(Sound of children playing in water, fade under)

CARTY: At the docks in Santarem, children jump and splash in the muddy flow of the Tapajos River. Beside them, workers are loading tanks of acetylene gas onto several river boats. Pricio, the gold miner, walks on board with a wheelbarrow and several new shovels -- more supplies for the gold fields. Somewhere on board, there is undoubtedly a supply of illegal mercury. In the Brazilian Amazon, the lure of gold, the crush of poverty, and the incompetence of government are forces still stronger than the fear of disaster. That may only change as the number of victims grows, or as easily accessible gold runs out. But even then, the plague of mercury will be here long after the gold is gone. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in the Brazilian Amazon city of Santarem.



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