Mercury contamination from artisanal gold mining in Antioquia, Colombia: The world's highest per capita mercury pollution

Sci Total Environ. 2011 Dec 1:410-411:154-60. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2011.09.006. Epub 2011 Oct 15.


The artisanal gold mining sector in Colombia has 200,000 miners officially producing 30tonnes Au/a. In the Northeast of the Department of Antioquia, there are 17 mining towns and between 15,000 and 30,000 artisanal gold miners. Guerrillas and paramilitary activities in the rural areas of Antioquia pushed miners to bring their gold ores to the towns to be processed in Processing Centers or entables. These Centers operate in the urban areas amalgamating the whole ore, i.e. without previous concentration, and later burn gold amalgam without any filtering/condensing system. Based on mercury mass balance in 15 entables, 50% of the mercury added to small ball mills (cocos) is lost: 46% with tailings and 4% when amalgam is burned. In just 5 cities of Antioquia, with a total of 150,000 inhabitants: Segovia, Remedios, Zaragoza, El Bagre, and Nechí, there are 323 entables producing 10-20tonnes Au/a. Considering the average levels of mercury consumption estimated by mass balance and interviews of entables owners, the mercury consumed (and lost) in these 5 municipalities must be around 93tonnes/a. Urban air mercury levels range from 300ng Hg/m(3) (background) to 1million ng Hg/m(3) (inside gold shops) with 10,000ng Hg/m(3) being common in residential areas. The WHO limit for public exposure is 1000ng/m(3). The total mercury release/emissions to the Colombian environment can be as high as 150tonnes/a giving this country the shameful first position as the world's largest mercury polluter per capita from artisanal gold mining. One necessary government intervention is to cut the supply of mercury to the entables. In 2009, eleven companies in Colombia legally imported 130tonnes of metallic mercury, much of it flowing to artisanal gold mines. Entables must be removed from urban centers and technical assistance is badly needed to improve their technology and reduce emissions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Cities
  • Gold
  • Humans
  • Mercury / analysis*
  • Metallurgy*
  • Mining
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Seasons
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Air Pollutants
  • Gold
  • Mercury