Arsenic Hazards to Humans, Plants, and Animals from Gold Mining

  • Ronald Eisler
Part of the Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology book series (RECT, volume 180)


Arsenic sources to the biosphere associated with gold mining include waste soil and rocks, residual water from ore concentrations, roasting of some types of gold-containing ores to remove sulfur and sulfur oxides, and bacterially enhanced leaching. Arsenic concentrations near gold mining operations are elevated in abiotic materials and biota: maximum total arsenic concentrations measured were 560 μg/L in surface waters, 5.16 mg/L in sediment pore waters, 5.6 mg/kg DW in bird liver, 27 mg/kg DW in terrestrial grasses, 50 mg/kg DW in soils, 79 mg/kg DW in aquatic plants, 103 mg/kg DW in bird diets, 225 mg/kg DW in soft parts of bivalve molluscs, 324 mg/L in mine drainage waters, 625 mg/kg DW in aquatic insects, 7,700 mg/kg DW in sediments, and 21,000 mg/kg DW in tailings.

Single oral doses of arsenicals that were fatal to 50% of tested species ranged from 17 to 48 mg/kg BW in birds and from 2.5 to 33 mg/kg BW in mammals. Susceptible species of mammals were adversely affected at chronic doses of 1–10 mg As/kg BW or 50 mg As/kg diet. Sensitive aquatic species were damaged at water concentrations of 19–48 μg As/L, 120 mg As/kg diet, or tissue residues (in the case of freshwater fish) >1.3 mg/kg fresh weight. Adverse effects to crops and vegetation were recorded at 3–28 mg of water-soluble As/L (equivalent to about 25–85 mg total As/kg soil) and at atmospheric concentrations >3.9 μg As/m3. Gold miners had a number of arsenic-associated health problems, including excess mortality from cancer of the lung, stomach, and respiratory tract. Miners and school children in the vicinity of gold mining activities had elevated urine arsenic of 25.7 μg/L (range, 2.2–106.0 μg/L). Of the total population at this location, 20% showed elevated urine arsenic concentrations associated with future adverse health effects; arsenic-contaminated drinking water is the probable causative factor of elevated arsenic in their urine. Proposed arsenic criteria to protect human health and natural resources are listed and discussed. Many of these proposed criteria do not adequately protect sensitive species.


Arsenic Concentration Arsenic Exposure Sodium Arsenite Arsenic Trioxide Sediment Pore Water 
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© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald Eisler
    • 1
  1. 1.Patuxent Wildlife Research CenterU.S. Geological SurveyLaurelUSA

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