Relationship between localization of gold mining areas and hair mercury levels in people from Bolivar, north of Colombia

Biol Trace Elem Res. 2011 Dec;144(1-3):118-32. doi: 10.1007/s12011-011-9046-5. Epub 2011 Apr 8.


Mercury (Hg) is a heavy metal that, once in the environment, is bioaccumulated and biomagnified through food chain impacting ecosystems. The aim of this study was to evaluate total Hg (T-Hg) concentrations in individuals along Cauca and Magdalena Rivers in Colombia, where most gold mining activities take place. A total of 1,328 hair samples were collected and analyzed for T-Hg using atomic absorption spectroscopy. T-Hg concentrations ranged from 0.01 to 20.14 μg/g. Greatest levels were detected in La Raya (5.27 ± 0.32 μg/g), Achi (2.44 ± 0.22 μg/g), and Montecristo (2.20 ± 0.20 μg/g), places that are located near gold mines. Concentrations decreased with the distance from main mining areas. Only 0.75% of the individuals had T-Hg levels above 10 μg/g. Men had significantly higher T-Hg levels than women, and correlation analysis revealed moderately weak but significant relationships between T-Hg and weight (R = 0.111, P < 0.001), stature (R = 0.111, P < 0.001), and age (R = 0.073, P = 0.007). However, T-Hg concentrations did not vary according to fish consumption frequency. Subjective health survey showed no Hg-related signs or symptoms within studied sample. However, studies are necessary to detect neurological damage linked to the metal. Changing technologies to Hg-free mining, monitoring, and educational programs are necessary to protect health of people living near Colombian rivers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Body Mass Index
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Colombia / epidemiology
  • Diet
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Environmental Pollution / analysis
  • Epidemiological Monitoring
  • Female
  • Fishes
  • Geography
  • Gold*
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Meat
  • Mercury / analysis*
  • Mercury Poisoning, Nervous System / epidemiology
  • Mercury Poisoning, Nervous System / psychology
  • Middle Aged
  • Mining*
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Spectrophotometry, Atomic
  • Young Adult


  • Gold
  • Mercury