HEALTH

Study Shows Peru's Indigenous Most Affected By Mercury In The Amazon Region

IQUITOS, PERU - JUNE 08:  A view of two river boats on June 8, 2007 in Iquitos, Peru. This pristine river and massive rainforest is under threat from infrastructure development in Peru. The Achuar Indian people of this Northern region recently won a legal battle with Argentinian Oil giant PlusPetrol to stop them dumping waste oil water, so called "hot-water" into their water supply. The amount is estimated at around 500 000 barrels a day over a period of 30 years. This has played havoc with the eco-systems around the town of Trompeteros. The oil company has yet to make good on its promises for payment and transparency. The oil company provides the bulk of employment for the polluted town of Trompeteros and thus has the local Achuan population under pressure to not pay attention to the pollution levels. The Achuan people are faced with a choice between a centuries old sustainable lifestyle in harmony with the environment or a move towards increased devastation of their natural lands in the Amazon basin by the oil industry.   (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

IQUITOS, PERU - JUNE 08: A view of two river boats on June 8, 2007 in Iquitos, Peru. This pristine river and massive rainforest is under threat from infrastructure development in Peru. The Achuar Indian people of this Northern region recently won a legal battle with Argentinian Oil giant PlusPetrol to stop them dumping waste oil water, so called "hot-water" into their water supply. The amount is estimated at around 500 000 barrels a day over a period of 30 years. This has played havoc with the eco-systems around the town of Trompeteros. The oil company has yet to make good on its promises for payment and transparency. The oil company provides the bulk of employment for the polluted town of Trompeteros and thus has the local Achuan population under pressure to not pay attention to the pollution levels. The Achuan people are faced with a choice between a centuries old sustainable lifestyle in harmony with the environment or a move towards increased devastation of their natural lands in the Amazon basin by the oil industry. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)  (2007 Brent Stirton)

Indigenous people, especially children, who get their protein mostly from fish in the Amazon are the most affected by mercury contamination from rampant informal gold mining in Peru, a study shows.

The new research by the Carnegie Institution for Science released Monday found mercury levels above acceptable limits in 76.5 percent of people in the Madre de Dios region, both rural and urban populations.

"Most of the communities that had the highest concentrations of mercury were native communities," said Luis E. Fernandez, the project director.

Based on hair samples, the people in those communities showed mercury levels more than five times the maximum acceptable and 2.3 times greater than those in non-indigenous communities, he said.

Children are at far greater risk than adults from poisoning by mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can cause brain and central nervous system damage.

"They are 10 times more sensitive to the effects of mercury," Fernandez said in a phone interview after presenting the findings to Peru's Environment Ministry.

The study by the Stanford, California-based institution examined a rainforest region of great biodiversity that includes natives living in voluntary isolation and where Peru's government has struggled in vain to control informal mining.

Researchers sampled hair from 1,029 people in 24 communities beginning last year. A quarter of the subjects work in the region's wildcat alluvial gold mining industry, where an estimated 35 metric tons a year of mercury is used to bind together gold flecks. The mercury is then burned off and enters the environment.

Fernandez said the explanation for greater mercury contamination among indigenous populations is their consumption of fish. His group's study of fish in the region found 60 percent of species contained unacceptable levels of mercury.

Peruvian authorities recently extended until August 2014 a deadline that was to have expired this month for the estimated 40,000 miners in the region to formalize their claims or leave.

Official efforts until now to halt illegal mining have been stymied by violent protests.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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