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Mercury contamination in Amazon basin.

Thursday, December 2nd 2004 - 20:00 UTC
Full article

Amazon basin representatives began discussing in Rio do Janeiro combating the potentially disastrous effects of tons of highly toxic mercury that illegal low-tech gold miners dump every year into the streams and rivers that make up the planet's biggest reserve of fresh water

Delegates from Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, Peru and Venezuela -members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization- are trying to agree as a first step on ways to determine current pollution levels.

Actually no reliable data exist regarding the damage mercury has caused to the rivers of the vast Amazon region, said Rosalia Arteaga, an Ecuadorian who serves as the treaty organization's secretary-general. "One part of the problem lies in the fact that this pollution largely comes from illegal activity".

Ms. Arteaga identified illegal mining and logging as the major causes of Amazon pollution, yet acknowledged that legal activities have also caused serious environmental damage. Officials in the region estimate that between one and three kilos of extremely toxic mercury are used for every kilo of gold extracted.

A highly polluting heavy metal, mercury is used to separate gold particles from ore, but waste produced in the process winds up being dumped into the Amazon's rivers.

Also expected to play a role in studying pollution levels is the United Nations Environment Program, which works to preserve and monitor global reserves of fresh water, considered by experts an endangered natural resource.

The Amazon effort is aimed at ensuring that the region avoids a disaster similar to the one that struck Japan's Minamata Bay where thousands of people were poisoned by mercury a mining company dumped for years into the water.

Mercury in Japan worked up its way all along the food chain ending in the fish consumed by humans, who became ill with serious nerve disorders in their hands and feet, among other symptoms. Large-scale genetic mutations also occurred in the area.

According to the latest figures available over the past half century almost 1,300 tons of mercury has been dumped into Amazon-basin fluvial system.

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