Water pollution results in more than two million human deaths every year, with a disproportionate amount of mortality occurring in developing countries. Tracing how and where water-borne pollutants enter the human body during everyday practices, and estimating the potential risks of these interactions, is critical to effective mitigation or adaptive practices to reduce health impacts. To understand these local processes, we worked with human communities along the Pampana River in Sierra Leone, Africa, from its headwaters at Lake Sonfon in the northeast—an area with both active and abandoned gold mining sites—to its confluence with the Jong River in the center of the country. We first measured the concentrations of heavy metals in fish that people eat and in riverbank soils where people congregate. We then estimated the risk people face, distinguishing carcinogenic risks from non-carcinogenic risks, as well as quantifying the risk to different age groups (i.e., adults vs children) at varying distances from the mining areas and operations, and in different seasons (wet vs dry season). We found dangerously high levels of heavy metals in fish and soil and conclude through life practice analysis that people living along the Pampana River face significantly elevated health risks in their everyday lives due to contamination from metals. The mean adult cancer risk was 1.01 × 10−3, while the mean child cancer risk was 9.42 × 10−3. Higher risks are associated with the wet season and living either downstream or closest to the mining operations and were particularly acute for children. Mining operations that directly impact riverine human settlements represent an area of concern for developing countries such as Sierra Leone.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
All replication data can be accessed from our Harvard Dataverse repository (Marcantonio 2020).
Acemoglu D, Reed T, Robinson JA (2014) Chiefs: economic development and elite control of civil society in Sierra Leone. J Polit Econ 122:319–368. https://doi.org/10.1086/674988
Akiwumi FA (2014) Strangers and Sierra Leone mining: cultural heritage and sustainable development challenges. J Clean Prod 84:773–782. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.12.078
AMCOW (2011) Water supply and sanitation in Sierra Leone. In: African Ministers Council on Water. https://www.wsp.org/sites/wsp/files/publications/CSO-sierra-leone.pdf
Amin R, Nelson A, McDougall S (2018) A spatial study of the location of superfund sites and associated cancer risk. Statis Public Polic 5:1–9. https://doi.org/10.1080/2330443X.2017.1408439
Basri DF, Abu Bakar NF, Fudholi A, Ruslan MH, Saroeun I (2015) Comparison of selected metals content in Cambodian striped snakehead fish (Channa Striata) using solar drying system and open sun drying. J Environ Public Health 2015:1–6. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/470968
Beevers MD (2015) Governing natural resources for peace: lessons from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Glob Gov 21:227–246
Billah MM, Mustafa Kamal AH, Idris MH, Ismail J (2017) Mangrove macroalgae as biomonitors of heavy metal contamination in a tropical estuary, Malaysia. Water Air Soil Pollut 228:347. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-017-3500-8
BirdLife International (2019) Important bird areas factsheet: Lake Sonfon and environs. BirdLife International, Cambridge
Blaikie P, Cannon T, Davis I, Wisner B (2014) At risk: natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters. Routledge, Oxfordshire, England
Bolten C (2009) The agricultural impasse: creating “normal” post-war development in northern Sierra Leone. J Pol Ecol 16:70–86. https://doi.org/10.2458/v16i1.21692
Bolten C (2014) Social networks, resources, and international NGOs in postwar Sierra Leone. Afric Conflict Peacebuild Rev 4:33–59. https://doi.org/10.2979/africonfpeacrevi.4.1.33
Bossche JPV, Bernacsek GM (1990) Source book for the inland fishery resources of Africa Vol. 2. UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome
Busia K, Akong C (2017) The African mining vision: perspectives on mineral resource development in Africa. J Sustain Dev Law Pol 8:145–192. https://doi.org/10.4314/jsdlp.v8i1.7
Chimange A (2018) Landless: impacts of mining on the environment and local population. University of Makeni, Makeni
Cooke CA, Kirk JL, Muir DCG, Wiklund JA, Wang X et al (2017) Spatial and temporal patterns in trace element deposition to lakes in the Athabasca oil sands region (Alberta, Canada). Environ Res Lett 12:124001. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa9505
Currie J, Greenstone M, Moretti E (2011) Superfund cleanups and infant health. Am Econ Rev 101:435–441. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.101.3.435
Dalby S (2017) Anthropocene formations: environmental security, geopolitics and disaster. Theory Cult Soc 34:233–252. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276415598629
Dethier EN, Sartain SL, Lutz DA (2019) Heightened levels and seasonal inversion of riverine suspended sediment in a tropical biodiversity hot spot due to artisanal gold mining. PNAS 116:23936–23941. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1907842116
Dixon MG, Schafer IJ (2014) Ebola viral disease outbreak — West Africa, 2014. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 63:548–551
Duodu GO, Goonetilleke A, Ayoko GA (2016) Comparison of pollution indices for the assessment of heavy metal in Brisbane River sediment. Environ Pollut 219:1077–1091. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2016.09.008
Dursun A, Yurdakok K, Yalcin SS, Tekinalp G, Aykut O et al (2016) Maternal risk factors associated with lead, mercury and cadmium levels in umbilical cord blood, breast milk and newborn hair. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med 29:954–961. https://doi.org/10.3109/14767058.2015.1026255
FDA (2019a) Advice about eating fish. Center for Food Safety at the US Food and Drug Administration, Washington, D.C
FDA (2018) Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish (1990–2012). US Food and Drug Administration, Washington, D.C
FDA (2019b) Technical information on development of FDA/EPA advice about eating fish for women who are or might become pregnant, breastfeeding mothers, and young children. Center for Food Safety at the US Food and Drug Administration, Washington, D.C
Filippelli GM, Laidlaw MAS (2010) The elephant in the playground: confronting lead-contaminated soils as an important source of lead burdens to urban populations. Perspect Biol Med 53:31–45. https://doi.org/10.1353/pbm.0.0136
Frederiksen T (2019) Political settlements, the mining industry and corporate social responsibility in developing countries. Extract Indust Soc 6:162–170. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2018.07.007
Fuller R, Sandilya K, Hanrahan D (2019) Pollution and Health metrics. Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, New York. https://gahp.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/PollutionandHealthMetrics-final-12_18_2019.pdf
GAHP (2019a) Global pollution map and database. Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, New York. https://gahp.net/contaminated-sites-database/
GAHP (2019b) Pollution Health overview and solutions. Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, New York. https://gahp.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Pollution-Health-Overview-and-Solutions2019.pdf
Goix S, Maurice L, Laffont L, Rinaldo R, Lagane C et al (2019) Quantifying the impacts of artisanal gold mining on a tropical river system using mercury isotopes. Chemosphere 219:684–694. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2018.12.036
Guo C, Chen Y, Xia W, Qu X, Yuan H et al (2020) Eutrophication and heavy metal pollution patterns in the water supplying lakes of China’s south-to-north water diversion project. Sci Total Environ 711:134543. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.134543
Hales S, Kovats S, Lloyd S, Campbell-Lendrum D (2014) Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s. World Health Orgnaization, Geneva
Health TLP (2018) The world’s biggest threats are environmental risks. Lancet Planet Health 2:e51. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(17)30164-X
HRW (2014) Whose development?: human rights abuses in Sierra Leone’s mining boom. Human Rights Watch, Amsterdam
Kamara AB (2015) What policies have been implemented in the protection of Sierra Leone’s natural resources? Int J Energy Environ Res 3:21–46. http://www.eajournals.org/wp-content/uploads/What-Policies-Have-Been-implemented-in-the-Protection-of-Sierra-Leone---s-Natural-Resources.pdf
Kammen DM, Hassenzahl DM (2001) Should we risk it?: exploring environmental, health, and technological problem solving. Princeton University Press, Princeton
Kamunda C, Mathuthu M, Madhuku M (2016) Health risk assessment of heavy metals in soils from Witwatersrand gold Mining Basin, South Africa. IJERPH 13:663. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13070663
Kirchner JW, Neal C (2013) Universal fractal scaling in stream chemistry and its implications for solute transport and water quality trend detection. PNAS 110:12213–12218. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1304328110
Kirsch S (2014) Mining capitalism: the relationship between corporations and their critics. Univ of California Press, Berkeley
Knutsen CH, Kotsadam A, Olsen EH, Wig T (2017) Mining and local corruption in Africa. Am J Polit Sci 61:320–334. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12268
Landrigan PJ, Fuller R, Acosta NJR, Adeyi O, Arnold R et al (2017) The lancet commission on pollution and health. Lancet 391:462–512. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32345-0
Landrigan PJ, Fuller R, Hu H, Caravanos J, Cropper M et al (2018) Pollution and global health – an agenda for prevention. Environ Health Perspect 126:1–6. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP3141
Lepak RF, Hoffman JC, Janssen SE, Krabbenhoft D, Ogorek J et al (2019) Mercury source changes and food web shifts alter contamination signatures of predatory fish from Lake Michigan. PNAS 116:23600–23608. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1907484116
Lindberg TT, Bernhardt ES, Bier R, Helton A, Merola R et al (2011) Cumulative impacts of mountaintop mining on an Appalachian watershed. PNAS 108:20929–20934. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112381108
Liu X, Jiang J, Yan Y, Dai Y, Deng B et al (2018) Distribution and risk assessment of metals in water, sediments, and wild fish from Jinjiang River in Chengdu, China. Chemosphere 196:45–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2017.12.135
Maconachie R (2012) Diamond mining, urbanisation and social transformation in Sierra Leone. J Contemp Afr Stud 30:705–723. https://doi.org/10.1080/02589001.2012.724872
Maconachie R, Binns T (2007) ‘Farming miners’ or ‘mining farmers’?: Diamond mining and rural development in post-conflict Sierra Leone. J Rural Stud 23:367–380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2007.01.003
Marcantonio R (2020) Replication data for: Identifying human health risks from precious metal mining in Sierra Leone Harvard Dataverse https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/LUBKLX
Marcantonio R, Fuentes A (2020) A clear past and a murky future: life in the Anthropocene on the Pampana River, Sierra Leone. Land 9:72. https://doi.org/10.3390/land9030072
Mason NH (2014) Environmental governance in Sierra Leone’s mining sector: a critical analysis. Res Policy 41:152–159. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2014.05.005
Mhlongo S, Mativenga PT, Marnewick A (2018) Water quality in a mining and water-stressed region. J Clean Prod 171:446–456. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.10.030
Moiseenko TI, Morgunov BA, Gashkina NA, Megorskiy VV, Pesiakova AA et al (2018) Ecosystem and human health assessment in relation to aquatic environment pollution by heavy metals: case study of the Murmansk region, northwest of the Kola Peninsula, Russia. Environ Res Lett 13:065005. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aab5d2
Najamuddin PT, Sanusi HS, Nurjaya IW (2016) Seasonal distribution and geochemical fractionation of heavy metals from surface sediment in a tropical estuary of Jeneberang River, Indonesia. Mar Pollut Bull 111:456–462. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.06.106
Niane B, Guédron S, Moritz R, Cosio C, Ngom PM et al (2015) Human exposure to mercury in artisanal small-scale gold mining areas of Kedougou region, Senegal, as a function of occupational activity and fish consumption. Environ Sci Pollut Res 22:7101–7111. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-014-3913-5
Pasqualino MM, Thilsted SH, Phillips MJ, Koroma AS (2016) Food and nutrition security in Sierra Leone with a focus on fish in Tonkolili District. World Fish Program, Penang
Pavilonis B, Grassman J, Johnson G, Diaz Y, Caravanos J (2017) Characterization and risk of exposure to elements from artisanal gold mining operations in the Bolivian Andes. Environ Res 154:1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2016.12.010
Peterson SA, Van Sickle J, Hughes RM, Schacher JA, Echols SF (2004) A biopsy procedure for determining filet and predicting whole-fish mercury concentration. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 48:99–107. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00244-004-0260-4
QGIS (2020) Quantum Geographic Information System. Version 3.8. Open Source Geospatial Foundation Project http://qgis.org
R Core Team (2019) R: A language and environment for statistical computing. Version v.1.1.463. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna
Rajeshkumar S, Liu Y, Zhang X, Ravikumar B, Bai G et al (2018) Studies on seasonal pollution of heavy metals in water, sediment, fish and oyster from the Meiliang Bay of Taihu Lake in China. Chemosphere 191:626–638. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2017.10.078
Ramachandra TV, Sudarshan PB, Mahesh MK, Vinay S (2018) Spatial patterns of heavy metal accumulation in sediments and macrophytes of Bellandur wetland, Bangalore. J Environ Manag 206:1204–1210. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2017.10.014
Richards P (1996) Fighting for the rain forest: war, Youth & Resources in Sierra Leone. International African Institute, London
Richards P, Bah K, Vincent J (2004) Social capital and survival: prospects for community driven development in post-confict Sierra Leone. World Bank, Social Development Department, Washington D.C.
Roche C, Thygesen K, Baker E (2017) Mining tailings storage: safety is no accident. A UNEP Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environmental Program and GRID-Arendal, Nairobi and Arendal. https://gridarendal-website-live.s3.amazonaws.com/production/documents/:s_document/371/original/RRA_MineTailings_lores.pdf?1510660693
SA DEA (2010) The framework for the management of contaminated land, South Africa. Republic of South Africa Department of Environmental Affairs, Cape Town
Schwarzenbach RP, Egli T, Hofstetter TB et al (2010) Global water pollution and human health. Annu Rev Environ Resour 35:109–136. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-100809-125342
Senez-Mello TM, Crapez MAC, Ramos-Silva CAR, Silva ET, Fonseca EM (2020) Heavy metals bioconcentration in Crassostrea rhizophorae: a site-to-site transplant experiment at the Potengi estuary, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil. Sci Rep 10:1–13. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-57152-w
Sesay PB, Duada A, Bai-Sesay M, Kamara Y, Kargbo F et al (2017) Report on the biodiversity of Lake Sonfon and its environs, Sierra Leone. Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, Freetown
Singer MB, Aalto R, James LA, Kilham NE, Higson JL et al (2013) Enduring legacy of a toxic fan via episodic redistribution of California gold mining debris. PNAS 110:18436–18441. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1302295110
SL EPA (2008) Environmental Protection Agency Act of 2008. Government of Sierra Leone, Freetown, Sierra Leone http://www.sierra-leone.org/Laws/2008-11.pdf
Sommer JM, Shandra JM, Restivo M, Coburn C (2015) Water, sanitation, and health in sub-Saharan Africa: a cross-national analysis of maternal and neo-natal mortality. Hum Ecol Rev 22:129–152
SSL (2016) Sierra Leone 2015 Population and Housing Census. Statistics Sierra Leone, Freetown https://www.statistics.sl/index.php/census/census-2015.html
Stewart AG (2019) Mining is bad for health: a voyage of discovery. Environ Geochem Health 42:1153–1165. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-019-00367-7
UN (2017) Country profile: Sierra Leone, 2017. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa. https://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/uploaded-documents/CountryProfiles/2018/sierraleone_cp_2017_en.pdf
UNDP (2019) Sierra Leone Annual Report. United Nations Development Program, Geneva. https://www.sl.undp.org/content/sierraleone/en/home/library/annual-reports/undp-sierra-leone-2018-annual-report.html
UNDP, UNEP (2018) Managing Mining for Sustainable Development. UN Development Program and the UN Environmental Program, Bangkok. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/poverty-reduction/Managing-Mining-for-SD.html
US CDC (2017) Meeting of the lead poisoning prevention subcommittee of the NCEH/ATSDR board of scientific counselors. US Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
US EPA (2019) EPA facts about thorium. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C.
US EPA (2001) US EPA risk assessment guidance for superfund: volume III - part a, process for conducting probabilistic risk assessment. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C.
US EPA (2014) Framework for human health risk assessment to inform decision making. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C.
US EPA (2018) Regional screening levels (RSLs) - resident soil tables. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C.
US EPA (2011) Default use of body weight 3/4 as the default method in derivation of the oral reference dose. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C.
US EPA (1999) Consideration of cumulative impacts. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C.
US EPA (2005) Supplemental guidance for assessing susceptibility from early-life exposure to carcinogens. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.
Vermeulen R, Schymanski EL, Barabási A-L, Miller GW (2020) The exposome and health: where chemistry meets biology. Science 367:392–396. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aay3164
von der Goltz J, Barnwal P (2019) Mines: the local wealth and health effects of mineral mining in developing countries. J Dev Econ 139:1–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jdeveco.2018.05.005
Wantzen KM, Mol JH (2013) Soil erosion from agriculture and mining: a threat to tropical stream ecosystems. Agriculture 3:660–683. https://doi.org/10.3390/agriculture3040660
WHO (2018) Lead poisoning and health. World Health Organization, Geneva
Wild CP (2005) Complementing the genome with an “Exposome”: the outstanding challenge of environmental exposure measurement in molecular epidemiology. Cancer Epidemiol Biomark Prev 14:1847–1850. https://doi.org/10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-05-0456
Wild CP (2012) The exposome: from concept to utility. Int J Epidemiol 41:24–32. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyr236
Wilson SA (2015) Corporate social responsibility and power relations: Impediments to community development in post-war Sierra Leone diamond and rutile mining areas. Extr Ind Soc 2:704–713. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2015.09.002
Xia F, Qu L, Wang T, Luo L, Chen H et al (2018) Distribution and source analysis of heavy metal pollutants in sediments of a rapid developing urban river system. Chemosphere 207:218–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2018.05.090
The authors thank the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone for their efforts and partnership in the production of this research, and the Center for Environmental Science and Technology and the Stream and Wetland Ecology Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame for laboratory and analytical support. Special thanks are owed to Mike Brueseke, Jon Loftus, Whitney Conard, Sarah Klepinger, Sheku Kamara, Martin Bamin, Mark Golitko, and Cat Bolten for their assistance with various aspects of this study. Finally, the authors thank Bettina Genthe and Evan Dethier for their insightful and helpful reviews of this article.
RAM received funding from the GLOBES Graduate Program on Environment and Society at the University of Notre Dame in support of this research.
All human subject research included in this study was conducted in accordance with our University of Notre Dame IRB approved protocol # 17-03-3691.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Communicated by Wolfgang Cramer
About this article
Cite this article
Marcantonio, R.A., Field, S.P., Sesay, P.B. et al. Identifying human health risks from precious metal mining in Sierra Leone. Reg Environ Change 21, 2 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-020-01731-5
- Water pollution
- Health risks
- Environmental risk
- Exposure assessment
- Sierra Leone