Mercury hazards from gold mining to humans, plants, and animals

Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2004;181:139-98. doi: 10.1007/0-387-21733-9_4.


Mercury contamination of the environment from historical and ongoing mining practices that rely on mercury amalgamation for gold extraction is widespread. Contamination was particularly severe in the immediate vicinity of gold extraction and refining operations; however, mercury, especially in the form of water-soluble methylmercury, may be transported to pristine areas by rainwater, water currents, deforestation, volatilization, and other vectors. Examples of gold mining-associated mercury pollution have been shown for Canada, the U.S., Africa, China, the Philippines, Siberia, and South America. In parts of Brazil, for example, mercury concentrations in all abiotic materials, plants, and animals, including endangered species of mammals and reptiles, collected near ongoing mercury amalgamation gold mining sites were far in excess of allowable mercury levels promulgated by regulatory agencies for the protection of human health and natural resources. Although health authorities in Brazil are unable to detect conclusive evidence of human mercury intoxication, the potential exists in the absence of mitigation for epidemic mercury poisoning of the mining population and environs. In the U.S., environmental mercury contamination is mostly from historical gold mining practices, and portions of Nevada remain sufficiently mercury contaminated to pose a hazard to reproduction of carnivorous fishes and fish-eating birds. Concentrations of total mercury lethal to sensitive representative natural resources range from 0.1 to 2.0 microg/L of medium for aquatic organisms; from 2,200 to 31,000 microg/kg BW (acute oral) and from 4,000 to 40,000 microg/kg (dietary) for birds; and from 100 to 500 microg/kg BW (daily dose) and from 1,000 to 5,000 microg/kg diet for mammals. Significant adverse sublethal effects were observed among selected aquatic species at water concentrations of 0.03-0.1 microg Hg/L. For some birds, adverse effects, mainly on reproduction, have been associated with total mercury concentrations (microg/kg FW) of 5,000 in feathers, 900 in eggs, and 50-100 in diet, and with daily intakes of 640 microg/kg BW. Sensitive nonhuman mammals showed significant adverse effects of mercury when daily intakes were 250 microg/kg BW, when dietary levels were 1,100 microg/kg, or when tissue concentrations exceeded 1,100 microg/kg. Proposed mercury criteria for protection of aquatic life range from 0.012 microg/L for freshwater life to 0.025 microg/L for marine life; for birds, less than 100 microg/kg diet FW; and for small mammals, less than 1,100 microg/kg FW diet. All these proposed criteria provide, at best, minimal protection.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds*
  • Ecosystem
  • Fishes
  • Food Chain*
  • Gold
  • Humans
  • Invertebrates
  • Mammals*
  • Mercury / toxicity*
  • Mercury Poisoning*
  • Mining
  • Plants
  • Public Health*
  • Risk Assessment


  • Gold
  • Mercury