Mercury in Fish in Madre de Dios and the Community’s Health Status and Views on External Assistance

According to researcher Katy Ashe, there are significantly high levels of mercury in the human population in the city of Puerto Maldonado as well as the region of Madre de Dios. “Rapidly increasing global prices for gold are causing a massive upsurge in artisanal mining in the Peruvian Amazon, considered to be one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.” (Ashe, 2012) Mercury is used to separate gold from silt, and rivers and other waterways are utilized for this process. Bacteria convert this mercury to methylmercury, an organic form that accumulates in the food chain, increasing in concentration higher up the chain. In other words, humans who consume fish that contains mercury will have a higher dose of mercury poisoning. Ashe finds that amount of fish consumption, gender, and location of residence were important indicators of mercury levels.

During my research on this issue, I came across an article in the Environmental Health News, which stated that Dr. Carlos Manrique, an epidemiologist and a doctor, used to work in mining towns was sworn in as a member of the Madre de Dios regional government council. His reason for running for office was because he believed that in addition to doctors, political leaders must solve the region’s health problems. Being a Public Health major, I became very interested in this issue.

This situation makes me think about how this region perceives the status of health and how health education is usually administered. It seems to me that regional issues are better solved by the leaders of that specific region. As we became more exposed to the Infierno native community while we were staying at the Posada Amazonas in the Tambopata River basin area, I wanted to learn more (from a Public Health and Policy perspective) about how the locals feel about this particular mercury situation on a community level. There is a large amount of existing research on why gold mining and mercury contamination is a health concern. There are also suggestions for more research, government involvement, or better policies. However, one perspective I didn’t find online during my research was the opinions and practices of the local community itself. This is why I ended up interviewing a representative of the Infierno community.

The Infierno native community representative answered my questions and concerns in these following parts:

  1. The fish that contains mercury. The representative stated that most adults in his community are aware of the fact that there can be mercury in fish they are consuming. Due to this fact, he and his community members only eat fish from the Tres Chimbadas oxbow lake or another lake that they know does not have contamination from gold mining.
  2. The possible direct exposure of mercury from mining. Posada Amazonas, the eco-lodge run by the Infierno community and Rainforest Expeditions in Madre de Dios, has provided many community members with job opportunities. There are at least 30 families who left gold mining to work there. Therefore, direct exposure to mercury has significantly decreased in the community.
  3. Health education and policy changes. The Infierno community, according to the representative, values their leaders’ words more than any other officials. If an outsider (professional or not) comes and tells them something, they likely won’t listen. If a government creates a policy that might apply to them, they may or may not follow depending on the issue and how it would affect them. However, if a community leader tells them something, they will definitely listen. When asked about outsiders visiting their community and possibly providing public health education (prevention methods, simpler ways of treatment, etc.), the representative said, “We welcome outsiders who want to learn about our traditions and see our jungle, but we are opposed to outsiders who want to come and change or forcefully help.” I followed up with a question about “What if an outsider who is a health professional cares about your community, found a health concern, and wanted to share this knowledge with you?” To this, he responded positively by saying that his community leaders and elders are open-minded and would make time to meet with this professional. However, the decision of pursuing this issue is completely up to the community. Once or if they need help, they would contact the professional.

His responses were understandable, and I appreciate the time he gave to speak with me. Personally, I think Infierno is a great example of how a native community can uphold their traditions while being open-minded about modern concepts that could improve their way of life.

Citations:

Ashe, K (2012) Elevated Mercury Concentrations in Humans of Madre de Dios, Peru. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33305. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033305

Fraser, B (2011). Peruvian Gold Comes with Mercury Health Risks. Scientific American.

– Christine Thinn

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