GUYANA: Int’l study exposes worrying levels of mercury poisoning in South Rupununi Region

Gold Mining – Guyana

By Kiana Wilburg

Sep 12, 2021  Kaieteur News – In recognition of the oftentimes irreversible effects of methylmercury, the Government of Guyana, almost eight years ago, signed onto and ratified the Minamata Convention. That international treaty is designed to protect human life as well as the environment from the release of methylmercury and its compounds during gold mining activities.

In fact, the PPP/C and APNU+AFC had made pledges and implemented several initiatives since 2013 to phase out the use of methylmercury, one of the most toxic forms of mercury that is used in the gold sector particularly by artisanal and small miners. In spite of their best efforts to mitigate the effects or impacts of this chemical on human life and the environment, studies over the years have uncovered alarming levels of mercury poisoning/contamination in Indigenous people and their environs which are in proximity to mining camps that make use of the harmful chemical.           

Map showing the communities that were part of the 2017 study as well as previously studied communities used for comparison purposes.

For those who may not be aware, methylmercury is so detrimental to human life that elevated levels can cause irreversible damage by reducing intellectual and motor skill capacity, especially in a developing foetus and breastfed children. Methylmercury poisoning presents a range of other symptoms, but the main effects are concentrated in the nervous, digestive, renal, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems.
In Guyana, studies dating back to the late 1990s have reported high levels of mercury in both people and fish, with carnivorous fishes showing higher levels than non-carnivorous fishes.

But the most recent study on its presence in Indigenous communities was conducted in 2017 by the World Wildlife Fund. The international non-governmental organisation was able to capture through its studies, the extent of mercury poisoning in the South Rupununi. Kaieteur News understands that the exercise was done on the request of the South Central People’s Development Association. Following this, the WWF team developed a study to measure mercury levels and identify risk factors associated with methylmercury levels in hair samples in four communities in the South Rupununi.

The study was conducted from March to May 2017 and saw 99 participants (58 females and 41 males). Participants’ age ranged from 15 to 78 years. From each participant, four cm long hair strands were cut close to the scalp in the occipital region and collected. WWF officers noted that the first two cm closest to the scalp (0–2 cm) was used to determine total mercury content since hair closest to the scalp can identify if participants were recently exposed to elevated levels of mercury as well as confirm that it is present in the blood stream.

The analysis was performed by a certified laboratory (ALS Inc., Burlington, Ontario, Canada Branch). The findings of the study indicated that indigenous populations in Guyana which live close to artisanal and small-scale gold mining activities and depend on local fish to supply most of their protein needs are likely to harbour high levels of mercury in their bodies. The situation is especially dire for community members in Parabara. It was found that 100 percent of adult participants from Parabara had high levels of mercury in their body.

The study said this result is comparable only to the levels of total mercury found in the Guyanese Indigenous people of Masakenari as reported in a previous study. It was also found to be well above other previously studied communities.

Further to this, the study said that the people of Parabara showed higher levels of total mercury contamination than any other Indigenous communities previously studied in neighbouring countries Venezuela, Suriname and French Guiana.

In light of the foregoing, the WWF study said it is therefore crucial that Parabara residents be evaluated for clinical symptoms related to mercury toxicity by the relevant health agencies in Guyana. In addition, the document said it is necessary to develop a plan so that community members can be continuously informed of the adverse effects of methylmercury and how to balance fish intake without compromising their health.

In contrast to Parabara, it was noted that the communities of Karaudarnau, Aishalton, and Shulinab, which are further from ASGM activities, showed low levels of mercury contamination. The low levels of mercury found in people from these communities may be explained by the fact that these communities have access to alternative sources of protein (i.e. poultry and beef), the study stated.

Taking into consideration that Guyana has ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, the international study said it is important to recognise that high levels of mercury may compromise the health of residents.

It said too that further rigorous studies are needed to develop reference limits in Guyana’s hinterland while adding that continued biomonitoring for methylmercury exposure is recommended, including follow-up studies to monitor trends, which are especially important in riverine communities close to mining activities. More importantly, in order to safeguard future generations, the WWF study said there is a need to implement short and long-term studies to assess mercury exposure in children less than six years of age, particularly for Indigenous infants and children, given that no data exist for Guyana.

As regards regulation, it was noted that permit granting and regulatory agencies (such as the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission and Environmental Protection Agency) should employ better land-use planning and consult with local communities when granting permits for gold mining activities to ensure that such activities do not negatively impact critical freshwater resources and other areas used by indigenous populations. The study said this would go a far way in helping to develop measures for safer artisanal and small gold mining practices including mercury phase-out in the South Rupununi region and other mining areas across Guyana.

Additionally, the study said it is important for the relevant agencies to start taking into account the potential effects of deforestation and other extractive activities that contribute to the removal of forest cover which facilitates the release of mercury into water bodies and the atmosphere.

As a final note, the study said that the overall results were presented to community leaders and members in their respective communities. A technical report was also provided to community leaders and relevant government agencies.

It is estimated that gold mining activities have caused damage to over 5840 km of rivers and streams and potentially impacted an additional 28,771 km of downstream habitat with turbidity and mercury.

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  • brandli62  On 09/15/2021 at 7:03 am

    This is very worrying as the contaminated water sources are directly threatening the health of the indigenous communities in the Rupununi. I surely hope that the affected population will make more pressure on the government to enforce a ban on the use of mercury in gold mining. After all, Guyana has ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

  • wally n  On 09/15/2021 at 11:28 am

    There might be a legal mountain to climb, similar to weather change advocates, it is not going to be easy, to attach blame.

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