Alarming levels of mercury are found in the ancient Amazon rainforest

The protected old-growth forest of the Amazon in southeastern Peru looks pristine: ancient trees with massive trunks grow alongside slen...


The protected old-growth forest of the Amazon in southeastern Peru looks pristine: ancient trees with massive trunks grow alongside slender saplings, forming a canopy so thick that scientists sometimes think it’s is in the evening during the day.

But a new analysis of what’s inside forest leaves and bird feathers tells a different story: The same canopy that harbors some of the planet’s richest biodiversity is also sucking levels levels of toxic mercury, according to a study released Friday.

Mercury is released into the air by miners searching for gold along nearby riverbanks. They use mercury to separate the precious metal from the surrounding sediment and then burn it. Carried through the air, the particles cling to leaves like dust and are washed onto the forest floor by rain. Other particles are sucked into the leaf tissues. From there, the mercury appears to have worked its way up the food web to songbirds, which showed mercury levels two to 12 times higher than comparable areas farther from mining activity.

“The patterns were so much more striking and so much more devastating than we expected to find them,” said Jacqueline Gerson, a biogeochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research as a doctoral student. student at Duke. The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

The findings, from the Madre de Dios region of Peru, provide new evidence of how people are changing ecosystems around the world as species extinction rates accelerate, without understanding the consequences .

Scientists have long known that mercury, which is also released into the air by burning coal, is a dangerous neurotoxin for humans and animals. In aquatic ecosystems, it can easily transform into a highly toxic form called methylmercury. As larger fish eat smaller ones, mercury sticks around and builds up in the food web. For this reason, doctors advise pregnant women around the world to avoid eating large predatory fish like shark, king mackerel and swordfish.

In the Madre de Dios region, where illegal gold mining surged In recent years, alongside the price of gold on world markets, the government declared a health emergency in 2016 after 40% of people tested in 97 villages had dangerously high levels of mercury in their systems.

Researchers have primarily focused on human exposure to mercury in rivers, lakes, and oceans. They didn’t worry about it as much on land, because it’s less likely to become methylmercury. But the sheer mercury load entering the forest, combined with the rainy and soil conditions, leads to worrying levels of methylmercury there.

“It was assumed that people living in the Peruvian Amazon get all of their exposure to methylmercury from eating fish,” Dr. Gerson said. “That may not be the case.”

The type of gold mining that occurs in the Madre de Dios region, called artisanal and small-scale mining, occurs in approximately 70 countries, often illegally or unofficially, and is the the largest source of mercury pollution in the world. It also accounts for around 20% of global gold production.

Julio Cusurichi Palacios, president of the Indigenous Federation of the Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries, a group formed by indigenous communities in the region, said the government should fight illegal mining through repression, but also strengthening alternative livelihoods for indigenous and other local populations. They harvest fish, Brazil nuts, yuca and corn, he says, but need help “to improve their products, to sell their products, so that they don’t fall into the idea: ‘I better go into mining, because my product has no value”. Marlet.'”

For the research, Dr. Gerson and his team collected soil, leaves, forest litter and other samples from three sites near mining activity and two farther away. To collect some leaves, they used a giant slingshot to throw a weighted rope into the canopy and pull the branches down.

When mercury levels returned, it was the protected site near the gold mining activity that stood out. These areas contained more than 15 times more mercury than nearby clearings, likely because the thick canopy and vegetation captured and stored mercury.

Shocked by the numbers, Dr. Gerson continued to search the scientific literature for examples of forests with similar levels. The only one she found was in an industrial area in Guizhou, China, polluted by mercury mining and coal burning. Some levels in the seemingly healthy ancient Amazon were even higher.

By capturing mercury, forests help keep it out of aquatic systems, said Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biogeochemistry professor and study co-author.

“These are some of the most biodiverse forests on Earth,” said Dr Bernhardt. “We already knew they were sequestering tons of carbon in their biomass and soils, and now we’ve discovered an incredibly important additional service.”

But the service is not without cost. Mercury poisoning can affect the birds’ ability to navigate and sing, and may cause them to lay fewer eggs, she noted. It can also make their eggs less likely to hatch.

Previously, scientists had assumed that airborne mercury pollution from this type of gold mining would have less of an impact locally, said Daniel Obrist, a professor of environmental science at the University of Massachusetts. Lowell, who studied mercury in forests in the northeastern United States and the Arctic. and did not participate in the Amazon study.

“It fills a very important gap in understanding what is happening out there with small-scale mining and what the implications are,” Dr Obrist said. “Not only for global processes, but also for local communities.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Alarming levels of mercury are found in the ancient Amazon rainforest
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