Drs. Brian T. Pavilonis, Jean Grassman, and Glen Johnson, professors at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and a graduate student, Mr. Yil Diaz, characterized the risks of artisanal gold mining in the Bolivian Andes. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Research.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining offers low-skilled workers an opportunity to elevate themselves out of poverty. However, this industry operates with little to no pollution controls and the cost to the environment and human health can be large.
The objectives of this study were to measure levels of arsenic, manganese, cobalt, lead, and mercury in the environment and characterize health risks to miners and residents in an area with active artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations. The research team conducted exposure assessments at two different mining sites and a nearby village in the Bolivian Anders. They used the resulting measurements were to quantify cancerous and noncancerous health risks to children and adults working at and living near artisanal and small-scale gold mining areas.
Soil concentrations of arsenic were well above background levels and showed great variations between the village and mining area. Mercury vapor levels at the two mining sites were approximately 30 times larger than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reference concentration. The risk of developing non-cancerous health effects were primarily due to exposure to arsenic and mercury.
The probability of individuals developing cancer was considerably increased with adult miners having a probability of 1.3 out of 100. Exposure to arsenic drove the cancer potential, with de minimis cancer risk from all other elements. Based on the environmental characterization of elements in soils and mercury vapors, the risk of developing cancerous and non-cancerous health outcomes were above a level of concern based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency risk assessment guidance. Personal protective equipment was not worn by workers and mercury amalgam was commonly heated in workers’ homes.
The research team recommended better education of the risks of artisanal and small-scale gold mining, as well as simple controls to reduce exposure.