Colombia’s Comptroller General’s Office issued a warning to the national government Monday over the unchecked use of mercury in over half of the country’s 32 states.
In total, the administrative oversight body found evidence of mercury contamination in 17 states and 80 municipalities, reportedly the result of illegal mining activity.
Mercury, explains the report, is used to filter gold from other minerals extracted during the mining process and later dumped into nearby water systems, reaching civilian populations once it feeds into the the river systems. Cyanide is another toxin used during the extraction process.
The problem has been detected throughout the north, west, and cetral regions of the country in the states of Amazonas, Antioquia, Bolivar, Caldas, Caqueta, Cauca, Choco, Cordoba, Guainía, Huila, Nariño, Putumayo, Risaralda, Santander, Sucre, Tolima and Valle del Cauca.
Some of the areas, the report mentioned, coincide with zones heavily affected by Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict, which now relies on illegal mining as one of its primary sources of funding.
In one such region, the northwestern state of Choco, officials made previous denunciations earlier this year about the impact environmental contamination was having on the already grave humanitarian crisis affecting the state.
Dangers of mercury
Mercury is highly toxic, and also very difficult to eliminate. It does not degrade naturally and accumulates within the tissues of contaminated organisms, according to the report.
Studies have shown that anyone who eats fish or other animals contaminated with high mercury levels may be at risk of serious health issues. After being used in gold mining the mercury is often deduced in river basins, which locals rely on for fish, drinking water, and bathing, among other things.
One study conducted along the Cauca river in Bolivar showed that locals who have ingested mercury contaminated fish have problems with hand tremors, memory loss, and decreased IQ. Babies of pregnant women who are exposed to mercury will be at risk of birth defects.
According to the Comptroller General’s Office, none of the affected regions have taken appropriate measures to monitor or analyze the mercury level in their water supplies.
Efforts by the natioanl government to curb illegal mining have been criticized by miners groups, which say that the government has targeted small informal miners who don’t have access to proper environmental education and material support, and left alone the larger criminal operations being run in isolated rural ares.
- 17 departamentos y 80 municipios tienen problemas de contaminación por uso de mercurio en extracción ilegal de oro (Comptroller General’s Office)