, Volume 1, Supplement 2, pp SU59–SU71 | Cite as

Mercury in Fish-eating Communities of the Andean Amazon, Napo River Valley, Ecuador

  • Jena WebbEmail author
  • Nicolas Mainville
  • Donna Mergler
  • Marc Lucotte
  • Oscar Betancourt
  • Robert Davidson
  • Edwin Cueva
  • Edy Quizhpe
Original Contribution


This exploratory study aimed to examine the relationship between fish eating habits, human mercury levels, and mercury levels in fish in three communities of the Napo River Valley, Ecuadorian Andean Amazon, a region without gold mining but with significant deforestation and volcanic soils with naturally high mercury levels. By recognizing the politicoeconomic factors which cause deforestation, the cultural factors which influence diet, and the biogeochemical factors which contribute to mercury levels, this study employs an ecosystem approach. Interviews on diet were conducted, hair samples from 99 individuals were collected, and samples of commonly eaten fish were taken. Samples were analyzed using cold vapor atomic fluorescence spectrometry (CVAFS). Two rural communities were found to have higher fish consumption and hair mercury levels (8.71 μg/g and 5.32 μg/g) as compared to an urban community (1.87 μg/g). A sequential analysis of hair established mercury levels by month. No seasonal tendencies were noted. Piscivorous fish (0.36 μg/g) were found to be more contaminated in mercury than herbivorous fish (0.05 μg/g). The study shows that sociocultural factors are important in determining mercury exposure. The two village communities consume different species of fish with different frequencies, leading to differential exposure and mercury concentrations in hair samples. The levels of mercury in these two villages were similar to those found in Brazil where neurobehavioral tests showed a correlation between these relatively low levels of mercury and decreased psychomotor capacities. These findings are concerning and should be followed by further studies on the multiple factors that affect the health status of these exposed communities.


fish mercury fish consumption mercury exposure hair mercury Andean Amazon Ecuador 



This study was supported by grants from the Inter American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) under the PESCA program (Program to Expand Scientific Capacities in the Americas), the Government of Québec (Office Québec-Amériques pour la Jeunesse [OQAJ] and Bureau de la Coopération Internationale [BCI]), a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) discovery grant to Marc Lucotte, and Donna Mergler’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Academic Fellowship. We thank Isabelle Rheault of the Centre de Recherche en Géochimie et en Géodynamique (GEOTOP), Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM) laboratory, for all her help with the lab analyses, and Bertrand Fournier of the Service de Consultation en Analyse de Données (SCAD), UQAM, for his help with the statistical analysis. This project was only possible as a result of the support that we received from our Ecuadorian collaborators. Each community welcomed us and helped us in their own way. We warmly thank Fredy, Maria, Ricardo, Walter, Silvario, and Jacinta Mamallacta-Yumbo for their hospitality. Other community members were also actively involved in the realization of this study. Thanks to Jaime, Maya, Jinson, José Vivánco, Rosa Adela Almeda Abarca, Evaristo Gindigua, Juan Vargas Cardova, Belisario Gualinga, Helio Ayala, Nelson Grefa, Luis Yauri Poma, Nixon Revelo, Efrain Cerda, and Janeth, Diego, Jairo, and Fransisco Bustos.


  1. Akagi, H, Malm, O, Kinjo, Y, Harada, M, Branches, FJP, Pfeiffer, WC,  et al. 1995Methylmercury pollution in Amazon, BrazilScience of the Total Environment1758595Google Scholar
  2. Al-Muzaini, S, Jacob, PG 1996An assessment of toxic metals content in the marine sediments of the Shuaiba industrial area, Kuwait, after the oil spill during the Gulf WarWater Science & Technology34203210Google Scholar
  3. Arréghini, L, Gomez, NE, Leon, JBV, Portais, M 1997Ecuador: Espacio y SociedadPUCE-ORSTOM-INECQuito, EcuadorGoogle Scholar
  4. Banat, IM, Hassan, ES, El-Shahawi, MS, Abu-Hilal, AH 1998Post-Gulf-War assessment of nutrients, heavy metal ions, hydrocarbons, and bacterial pollution levels in the United Arab Emirates coastal watersEnvironment International24109116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bloom, NS, Fitzgerald, WF 1988Determination of volatile Hg species at the picogram level by low-temperature gas chromatography with cold-atomic fluorescence detectionAnalytica Chimica Acta208151161CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boischio, AAP, Henshel, D 2000Fish consumption, fish lore, and mercury pollution—risk communication for the Madeira River PeopleEnvironmental Research A84108126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boischio, AAP, Henshel, D, Barbosa, AC (1995) “Mecury exposure through fish consumption by the Upper Madeira River population, Brazil–1991” Ecosystem Health 1: 177–192Google Scholar
  8. Bou-Olayan, A-H, Al-Mattar, S, Al-Yakoob, S, Al-Hazeem, S 1995Accumulation of lead, cadmium, copper and nickel by pearl oyster, Pinctada radiata, from Kuwait marine environmentMarine Pollution Bulletin30211214Google Scholar
  9. Castilhos, ZC, Bidone, ED, Hartz, SM 2001Bioaccumulation of mercury by Tucunaré (Chichlea ocellaris) from Tapajós river region, Brazilian Amazon: a field dose-response approachBulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology66631637Google Scholar
  10. Castoldi, AF, Coccini, T, Manzo, L 2004Neurotoxic and molecular effects of methylmercury in humansReview of Environmental Health181931Google Scholar
  11. Cerdeira, RGP, Ruffino, ML, Isaac, VJ 1997Consumo de pescado e outros alimentos pela população ribeirinha do Lago Grandede Monte Alegre, PS-BrazilActa Amazonica27213228Google Scholar
  12. Cernichiari, E, Brewer, R, Myers, GL, Lapham, L, Cox, C, Shamlaye, CF,  et al. 1995Monitoring methylmercury during pregnancy: maternal hair predicts fetal brain exposureNeurotoxicology16705710PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Clarkson, TW, Hursh, JB, Sager, PR, Syversen, TLM (1988) “Mecury” In: Clarkson, TW, Friberg, L, Nordberg, GF, Sager, P (editors), Biological Monitoring of Metals , Plenum Press, New York, pp 199–246Google Scholar
  14. Cordier, S, Garel, M, Mandereau, L, Morcel, H, Doineau, P, Gosme-Seguret, S,  et al. 2002Neurodevelopmental investigations among methylmercury-exposed children in French GuianaEnvironmental Research, A89111Google Scholar
  15. Counter, SA 2003Neurophysiological anomalies in brainstem responses of mercury-exposed children of Andean gold minersJournal of Occupational Environmental Medicine458795Google Scholar
  16. Counter, SA, Buchanan, LH, Laurell, G, Ortega, F 1998Blood mercury and auditory neuro-sensory responses in children and adults in the Nambija gold mining area of EcuadorNeurotoxicology19185196PubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Counter, SA, Buchanan, LH, Ortega, F, Laurell, G 2002Elevated blood mercury and neuro-otological observations in children of the Ecuadorian gold minesJournal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part A65149163CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Dolbec, J, Mergler, D, Sousa Passos, C-J, Sousa Morais, S, Lebel, J 2000Methylmercury exposure affects motor performance of a riverine population of the Tapajós River, Brazilian AmazonInternational Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health73195203CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Dolbec, J, Mergler, D, Larribe, F, Roulet, M, Lebel, J, Lucotte, M 2001Sequential analysis of hair Hg levels in relation to fish diet of an Amazonian population, BrazilScience of the Total Environment2718797CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Fostier, A-H, Forti, MC, Guimarães, J-RD, Melfi, AJ, Boulet, R, Espirito Santo, CM,  et al. 2000Mercury fluxes in a natural forested Amazonian catchment (Serra do Navio, Amapá State, Brazil)Science of the Total Environment260201211CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Giugliano, R, Shrimpton, R, Arkoll, DB, Giugliano, LG, Petrere, M 1978Diagnostico de la realidade alimentar e nutricional do estado do AmazonasActa Amazonica81254Google Scholar
  22. Grandjean, P, White, RF, Nielsen, A, Cleary, D, Oliveira Santos, EC 1999Methylmercury neurotoxicity in Amazonian children downstream from gold miningEnvironmental Health Perspectives107587591PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Guimarães, JR, Meili, M, Hylander, LD, Castro de Silva, E, Roulet, M, Mauro, JB,  et al. 2000aMercury net methylation in five tropical flood plain regions of Brazil: high in the root zone of floating macrophyte mats but low in surface sediments and flooded soilsScience of the Total Environment26199107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Guimarães, J-RD, Roulet, M, Lucotte, M, Mergler, D 2000bMercury methylation along a lake-forest transect in the Tapajós river floodplain, Brazilian Amazon: seasonal and vertical variationsScience of the Total Environment2619198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Instituto de Epidemiología y Salud Comunitaria (IESC) “Manuel Amunárriz” (2000) Informe Yani Curi: Impacto de la Actividad Petrolera en la Salud de Poblaciones Rurales de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana, Quito, Ecuador: CICAMEGoogle Scholar
  26. Kehrig, HA, Malm, O, Akagi, H 1997Methylmercury in hair samples from different riverine groups, Amazon, BrazilWater, Air, and Soil Pollution971729Google Scholar
  27. Kehrig, HA, Malm, O, Akagi, H, Guimarães, J-RD, Torres, JPM 1998Methylmercury in fish and hair samples from the Balbina Reservoir, Brazilian AmazonEnvironmental Research778490CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Kimerling, J 1993Crudo Amazónico.Abya-YalaQuito, EcuadorGoogle Scholar
  29. Lebel, J 2003In_Focus: HEALTH: an Ecosystem ApproachIDRCOttawa, CanadaGoogle Scholar
  30. Lebel, J, Mergler, D, Lucotte, M, Dolbec, J 1996Mercury contaminationAmbio25374Google Scholar
  31. Lebel, J, Roulet, M, Mergler, D, Lucotte, M, Larribe, F 1997Fish diet and Hg exposure in a riparian Amazonian populationWater, Air, and Soil Pollution973144Google Scholar
  32. Lebel, J, Mergler, D, Branches, F, Lucotte, M, Amorim, M, Larribe, F,  et al. 1998Neurotoxic effects of low-level methylmercury contamination in the Amazonian BasinEnvironmental Research792032CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Lobao, LM, Brown, LA 1998Development context, regional differences among young women, and fertility: the Ecuadorean AmazonSocial Forces76819848Google Scholar
  34. Mainville N, Webb J, Lucotte M, Mergler D, Davidson R, Betancourt O, et al. (2003) Evaluation of the impacts of deforestation on mercury levels in soils, fish and humans in the Ecuadorian Amazon. IDRC International Forum on Ecosystem Approaches to Human Health, Montréal, Québec, Canada, May 18–23, Parallel Sessions Abstracts: 12Google Scholar
  35. Malm, O, Branches, FJP, Akagi, H, Castro, MB, Pfeiffer, WC, Harada, M,  et al. 1995Mercury and methylmercury in fish and human hair from the Tapajos river basin, BrazilScience of the Total Environment175141150CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Malm, O, Guimarães, JRD, Castro, MB, Bastos, WR, Viana, JP, Branches, FJP,  et al. 1997Follow-up of Hg levels in fish, human hair and urine in the Madeira and Tapajós Basins, Amazon, BrazilWater, Air, and Soil Pollution974551Google Scholar
  37. Mason, RP, Fitzgerald, WF, Morel, FMM 1994The biogeochemical cycling of elemental mercury: anthropogenic influenceGeochemical Cosmochimica Acta5831913198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Maurice-Bourgoin, L, Quiroga, I, Chincheros, J, Courau, P 2000Mercury distribution in waters and fishes of the upper Madeira River and mercury exposure in riparian Amazonian populationsScience of the Total Environment2607386CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Mauro, JBN, Guimarães, JRD, Melamed, R 2001Mercurymethylation in macrophyte roots of a tropical lakeWater, Air, and Soil Pollution127271280Google Scholar
  40. McGrath, DG, Castro, F, Futemma, C, Amaral, DB, Calabria, J 1993Fisheries and the evolution of resource management on the lower Amazon floodplainHuman Ecology21167195Google Scholar
  41. Myers, N 1993Tropical forests: the main deforestation frontsEnvironmental Conservation20916Google Scholar
  42. National Research Council (NRC)2000Toxicological Effects of MethylmercuryNational Academy Press Washington. DCGoogle Scholar
  43. Osman, Y 1997Environmental surveys conducted in the gulf region following the Gulf War to identify possible neurobehavioral consequencesEnvironmental Research73207210CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Passos, CJ, Mergler, D, Gaspar, E, Morais, S, Lucotte, M, Larribe, F,  et al. 2003Eating tropical fruit reduces mercury exposure from fish consumption in the Brazilian AmazonEnvironmental Research93123130CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Passos CJ, Lucotte M, Queiroz AG, Mergler D, Peleja JRP, Goch YGF, et al. (2004) Condições Socioeconômicas e exposição ao mercúric (Hg) através do consume de peixe: um estudo de caso em Santarém, Pará, Brasill [Socioeconomic conditions and mercury (Hg) exposure through fish consumption: a case study in Santarém, Pará, Brazil]. Saúde e Ambiente (in press)Google Scholar
  46. Pfeiffer, WC, Lacerda, LD, Malm, O, Souza, MCM, Silveira, EG, Bastos, WR 1989Mercury concentrations in inland waters of goldmining areas in Rondonia, BrazilScience of the Total Environment87/88233240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Phelps, RW, Clarkson, TW, Kershaw, TG, Wheatley, B 1980Interrelationships of blood and hair mercury concentrations in a North American population exposed to methylmercuryArchives of Environmental Health35161168PubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Pichet, P, Morrison, K, Rheault, I, Tremblay, A (1999) “Analysis of total mercury and methylmercury in environmental samples” In: lucotte, M, Schetagne, R, Thérien, N, Langlois, C, Tremblay, A (editors), Hg in the Biogeochemical Cycle, Springer, Berlin, pp 41–52Google Scholar
  49. Ramírez Requelme, ME, Ramosa, JFF, Angélica, RS, Brabo, ES 2003Assessment of Hg-contamination in soils and stream sediments in the mineral district of Nambija, Ecuadorian Amazon (Example of an Impacted Area Affected by Artisanal Gold Mining)Applied Geochemistry18371381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Romero-Saltos, H, Valencia, R, Macía, MJ (2001) “Patrones de diversidad, distribución y rareza de plantes leñosas en el Parque Nacional Yasuní y la Reserva Étnica Huaorani, Amazonía Ecuatoriana” in: Duivenvoorden, JF (editor), Evaluación de Recursos Vegetales No Maderables en la Amazonía Noroccidental, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED), Universiteit van Ámsterdam, Amsterdam, pp 131–162Google Scholar
  51. Roulet, M (2001) “Le mercure: son cycle biogéochimique et sa répartition aux échelles planétaire et amazonienne” In: Carmouze, J-P, Lucotte, M, Boudou, A (editors), Le Mercure en Amazonie: Rôle de I’Homme et de I’Environnement, Risques Sanitaires, IRD Editions, Paris, pp 81–120Google Scholar
  52. Roulet, M, Lucotte, M, Canuel, R, Rheault, I, Tran, S, Freitos, Y,  et al. 1998Distribution and partition of total mercury in waters of the Tapajós River Basin, Brazilian AmazonScience of the Total Environment213203211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Roulet, M, Lucotte, M, Farella, N, Serique, G, Coelho, H, Sousa Passos, CJ,  et al. 1999Effects of recent human colonization on the presence of Hg in Amazonian ecosystemsWater, Air, and Soil Pollution112297313Google Scholar
  54. Roulet, M, Lucotte, M, Canuel, R, Farella, N, Courcelles, M, Guimarães, J-R,  et al. 2000Increase in Hg contamination recorded in lacustrine sediments following deforestation in the central AmazonChemical Geology165243266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Rudel, TK, Horowitz, B 1993Tropical Deforestation: Small Farmers and Land Clearing in the Ecuadorian AmazonColumbia University PressNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  56. Sadiq, M, Mian, AA 1994aLead, titanium and zinc in air particulate at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, during and after Kuwait oil firesScience of the Total Environment152113119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Sadiq, M, Mian, AA 1994bNickel and vanadium in air particulates at Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) during and after the Kuwait oil FiresAtmospheric Environment2822492254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sadiq, M, Zaidi, TH 1994Sediment composition and metal concentrations in mangrove leaves from the Saudi Coast of the Arabian GulfScience of the Total Environment15519Google Scholar
  59. Sampaio da Silva, D, Lucotte, M, Roulet, M, Poirier, H, Mergler, D, Crossa, M et al. (2004) “A bioacumulação do mercúric nos peixes do Rio Tapajós, Amazônia Brasileira” Acta Amazônica (in press)Google Scholar
  60. Santos, ECO, Jesús, M, Brabo, ES, Loureiro, ECB, Mascarenhas, AFS, Weirich, J,  et al. 2000Mercury exposures in riverside Amazon communities in Pará, BrazilEnvironmental Research84100107CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Sierra, R 2000Dynamics and patterns of deforestation in the western Amazon: the Napo deforestation front, 1986–1996Applied Geography20116Google Scholar
  62. Souza Lima, AP, Müller, RCS, Souza Sarkis, JE, Alves, CN, da Silva Bentes, MH, Brabo, E,  et al. 2000Mercury contamination in fish from Santarém, Pará, BrazilEnvironmental Research83117122CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Webb J (2004) Approche Écosystémique à la Santé Humaine: Le Cas du Mercure en Amazonie Andine, Vallée du Rio Napo, Équateur. Master’s thesis, Montreal: UQAMGoogle Scholar
  64. Witt, JM, Kakabadse, Y, Ortiz, R, Maldonado, L 1999Zonas Intangibles de la Amazonia EcuatorianaMinisterio de Medio AmbienteQuito, EcuadorGoogle Scholar
  65. Woolson, RF 1987Statistical Methods for the Analysis of Biomedical DataJohn WileyTorontoGoogle Scholar
  66. World Health Organization (WHO) (1989) International Programme on Chemical Safety. Environmental Health Criteria 86: Mercury—Environmental Aspects, Geneva: World Health OrganizationGoogle Scholar
  67. World Health Organization (WHO) (1990) International Programme on Chemical Safety. Environmental Health Criteria 101: Methylmercury, Geneva: World Health OrganizationGoogle Scholar
  68. Yokoo, EM, Valente, JG, Grattan, L, Schmidt, SL, Platt, I, Silbergeld, EK 2003Low level methylmercury exposure affects neuropsychological function in adultsEnvironmental Health42811Google Scholar
  69. Zebrowski C, Quantin P, Trujillo G (1997) Suelos Volcanicos Endurecedos, 3 Symposia International, Dicembre 1996, Quito, Ecuador: ORSTOMGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© EcoHealth Journal Consortium 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jena Webb
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Nicolas Mainville
    • 1
  • Donna Mergler
    • 2
  • Marc Lucotte
    • 3
  • Oscar Betancourt
    • 4
  • Robert Davidson
    • 1
    • 5
  • Edwin Cueva
    • 4
  • Edy Quizhpe
    • 6
  1. 1.Institute of Environmental Sciences (ISE)University of Québec in Montréal (UQAM)MontrealCanada
  2. 2.Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Biology, Health, Society and Environment (CINBIOSE)UQAMMontrealCanada
  3. 3.Centre for Research on Geochemistry and Geodynamics (GEOTOP)UQAMMontrealCanada
  4. 4.Health, Environment,and Development Foundation (FUNSAD)QuitoEcuador
  5. 5.Biodôme of MontréalMontrealCanada
  6. 6.Manuel Amunarriz Epidemiology and Community Health InstituteCocaEcuador

Personalised recommendations