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Exposure and toxic effects of elemental mercury in gold-mining activities in Ecuador.

Journal article
Authors Raúl Harari
Florencia Harari
Lars Gerhardsson
Thomas Lundh
Staffan Skerfving
Ulf Strömberg
Karin Broberg
Published in Toxicology letters
Volume 213
Issue 1
Pages 75-82
ISSN 1879-3169
Publication year 2012
Published at
Pages 75-82
Language en
Keywords Adult, Biological Markers, urine, Ecuador, Glutamate-Cysteine Ligase, genetics, Gold, Humans, Male, Mercury, toxicity, urine, Mining, Occupational Exposure, adverse effects, analysis, Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide, genetics, Psychomotor Performance, drug effects, Reaction Time, drug effects, Tremor, chemically induced
Subject categories Clinical Medicine


Traditional gold mining, using metallic mercury (Hg(0)) to form gold amalgam, followed by burning to remove the Hg(0), is widely used in South America, Africa and Asia. The gold is sold to merchants who burn it again to eliminate remaining Hg(0). In Ecuador, 200 gold miners, 37 gold merchants and 72 referents were studied. The median Hg concentrations in urine (U-Hg) were 3.3 (range 0.23-170), 37 (3.2-420), and 1.6 (0.2-13)μg/g creatinine, respectively, and in whole blood (B-Hg) were 5.2, 30, and 5.0 μg/L, respectively. Biomarker concentrations among merchants were statistically significantly higher than among miners and referents; also the miners differed from the referents. Burning of gold amalgam among miners was intermittent; U-Hg decreased in the burning-free period. In computerized neuromotor examinations, B-Hg and U-Hg concentrations were associated with increases in the centre frequency of the tremor, as well as in reaction time and postural stability.Retention of Hg (B-Hg), and the elimination rate (U-Hg) appears to be modified by polymorphism in a gene of an enzyme in the glutathione synthesis (GCLM), but there were no significant genetic modifications for the associations between exposure and neurotoxicity.Thus, the gold merchants have a much higher exposure and risk than the miners, in whom the exposure varies over time. The metabolism of Hg is modified by genetic traits. The present exposure to Hg had limited neurotoxic effects.

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