Peruvian Gold Comes with Risks to Miners and Retailers

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"New research shows that high levels of mercury are spreading to towns in the Amazon and Andes Mountains where gold is sold."

On a busy, dusty street beside a huge open-air market, signs reading "oro" mark shops that trade in gold. The customers, mostly men in work clothes and rubber boots, have just arrived from the mining camps to sell their gold and wire money home.

Inside, shopkeepers heat the miners' clumps of gold ore, releasing mercury vapors that waft into the shop, and then outside, into the streets crowded with townspeople.

Experts have long known Peru's miners are exposed to extremely high levels of mercury. But now new research shows that the toxic threat has spread to towns in the Amazon and Andes Mountains where gold is sold.

In Puerto Maldonado, a jungle town in Madre de Dios, one of Latin America's most productive gold mining areas, researcher Luis Fernández in 2009 detected mercury levels at a gold shop that were more than 20 times higher than an international worker safety standard. This February, his follow-up testing found mercury levels so extreme his monitor couldn't measure them.

Then, a week later, in a town high in the Andes, Fernández became truly alarmed when he measured mercury in the air outside the gold shops, and detected levels that exceeded the amounts considered safe.

"It seems clear that these workers are under extraordinary risk for acute mercury poisoning," he said, adding that people outside the shops are highly exposed, too.

In the first study of its kind in Peru, Fernández and a team of researchers funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are measuring mercury pollution from gold shops in Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazonian lowlands, and La Rinconada, 15,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.

Peruvian officials estimate that there are 100,000 small-scale miners working in virtually every region of Peru, so gold-shop emissions are a widespread problem.

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