The Catrimani River basin in northern Brazil is the home of the Yanomama and has been the site of renegade gold mining since 1980. Gold-mining operations release inorganic mercury (Hg) into the environment where it is organified and biomagnified in aquatic ecosystems. Ingestion of mercury-contaminated fish poses a potential hazard to fish-eating populations such as the Yanomama. We surveyed Hg levels in Yanomama villagers living near mined and unmined rivers in 1994 and 1995, and analyzed Hg levels in piranha caught by villagers. In 1994, 90 Yanomama Indians from 5 villages and in 1995, 62 Yanomama Indians from 3 villages participated in the studies. Four villages surveyed in 1994 were located directly on the Catrimani River, approximately 140–160 km downstream from past gold-mining activities. The other village surveyed in 1994 was situated on the unmined Ajaraní River. In 1995, 2 of the Catrimani River villages were revisited, and a third Yanomama village, on the unmined Pacu River, was surveyed. Blood organic mercury levels among all villagers surveyed ranged from 0 to 62.6 µg L–1 (mean levels in each village between 21.2 µg L–1 and 43.1 µg L–1). Mercury levels in piranha from the mined Catrimani River ranged from 235 to 1084 parts per billion (ppb). Nine of 13 piranhas, measuring 30 cm or longer had total mercury levels which exceeded mercury consumption limits (500 ppb) set by both the World Health Organization and the Brazilian Ministry of Health. Unexpectedly, high mercury levels were also observed in fish and villagers along the unmined Ajaraní and Pacu Rivers suggesting that indirect sources may contribute to environmental mercury contamination in the Amazon basin.
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Vol. 32 • No. 7