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Human exposure and risk assessment associated with mercury contamination in artisanal gold mining areas in the Brazilian Amazon

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Mercury (Hg) contamination is an issue of concern in the Amazon region due to potential health effects associated with Hg exposure in artisanal gold mining areas. The study presents a human health risk assessment associated with Hg vapor inhalation and MeHg-contaminated fish ingestion, as well as Hg determination in urine, blood, and hair, of human populations (about 325 miners and 321 non-miners) from two gold mining areas in the Brazilian Amazon (São Chico and Creporizinho, Pará State). In São Chico and Creporizinho, 73 fish specimens of 13 freshwater species, and 161 specimens of 11 species, were collected for total Hg determination, respectively. The hazard quotient (HQ) is a risk indicator which defines the ratio of the exposure level and the toxicological reference dose and was applied to determine the threat of MeHg exposure. The mean Hg concentrations in fish from São Chico and Creporizinho were 0.83 ± 0.43 and 0.36 ± 0.33 μg/g, respectively. More than 60 and 22 % of fish collected in São Chico and Creporizinho, respectively, were above the Hg limit (0.5 μg/g) recommended by WHO for human consumption. For all sampling sites, HQ resulted from 1.5 to 28.5, except for the reference area. In Creporizinho, the values of HQ are close to 2 for most sites, whereas in São Chico, there is a hot spot of MeHg contamination in fish (A2—São Chico Reservoir) with the highest risk level (HQ = 28) associated with its human consumption. Mean Hg concentrations in urine, blood, and hair samples indicated that the miners group (in São Chico: urine = 17.37 μg/L; blood = 27.74 μg/L; hair = 4.50 μg/g and in Creporizinho: urine = 13.75 μg/L; blood = 25.23 μg/L; hair: 4.58 μg/g) was more exposed to mercury compared to non-miners (in São Chico: urine = 5.73 μg/L; blood = 16.50 μg/L; hair = 3.16 μg/g and in Creporizinho: urine = 3.91 μg/L; blood = 21.04 μg/L, hair = 1.88 μg/g). These high Hg levels (found not only in miners but also in non-miners who live near the mining areas) are likely to be related to a potential hazard due to exposure to both Hg vapor by inhalation and to MeHg-contaminated fish ingestion.

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We acknowledge the fishermen Mr. Leandro, Mr. Jararaca, and Mr. Irmão Chagas, who kindly helped us to collect all of these Amazonian fish. This study was supported by UNIDO.

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Correspondence to Zuleica Castilhos.

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Responsible editor: Philippe Garrigues

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Castilhos, Z., Rodrigues-Filho, S., Cesar, R. et al. Human exposure and risk assessment associated with mercury contamination in artisanal gold mining areas in the Brazilian Amazon. Environ Sci Pollut Res 22, 11255–11264 (2015).

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