Distribution of mercury in several environmental compartments in an aquatic ecosystem impacted by gold mining in northern Colombia

Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 2008 Aug;55(2):305-16. doi: 10.1007/s00244-007-9129-7. Epub 2008 Feb 5.


Mercury (Hg) used in gold amalgamation is a major source of contamination in developing countries. Water, sediments, plankton, fish, and human samples from Grande Marsh, a Hg-polluted marsh located in the south of Bolívar, municipality of Montecristo, Colombia, were collected during both the rainy and the dry seasons (2003-2006), at three different sampling sites, and analyzed for total Hg (T-Hg) content. Water, sediment, seston, phytoplankton, and zooplankton T-Hg concentrations were 0.33 +/- 0.03 microg/L, 0.71 +/- 0.03, 1.20 +/- 0.06, 0.52 +/- 0.03, and 0.94 +/- 0.05 microg/g dry weight (wt), respectively. T-Hg levels in these compartments were highly pair-correlated (p < 0.05), and for all of them, except sediments, greater values were found during the dry season. Significant differences were observed for T-Hg concentrations in fish according to their trophic position. Average highest T-Hg values were found in carnivorous species such as Caquetaia kraussi (1.09 +/- 0.17 microg/g fresh wt), Hoplias malabaricus (0.58 +/- 0.05 microg/g fresh wt), and Plagioscion surinamensis (0.53 +/- 0.07 microg/g fresh wt), whereas the lowest were detected in noncarnivorous species such as Prochilodus magdalenae (0.157 +/- 0.01 microg/g fresh wt). In those fish species where seasonal comparisons were possible, specimens captured during the dry season had greater T-Hg levels in muscle. Although the T-Hg mean level for all fish samples (0.407 +/- 0.360 microg/g fresh wt) did not exceed the recommended limit ingestion level, risk assessment based on the hazard index suggested that a fish intake of 0.12 kg per day (a small carnivorous specimen) could increase the potential health effects related to Hg exposure in the local human population, whose hair T-Hg median value was 4.7 microg/g, and presented a low but significant correlation with fish consumption (r = 0.250, p = 0.016). In short, Hg pollution from gold mining around Grande Marsh has permeated the food web, and currently levels in fish represent a serious concern for human health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Colombia
  • Female
  • Fishes / metabolism*
  • Food Chain
  • Food Contamination / analysis
  • Fresh Water / analysis
  • Geologic Sediments / analysis
  • Gold
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mercury / metabolism*
  • Mining
  • Phytoplankton / metabolism
  • Seasons
  • Water Pollution, Chemical / analysis*
  • Wetlands*
  • Zooplankton / metabolism


  • Gold
  • Mercury