Mercury pollution by gold mining in a global biodiversity hotspot, the Choco biogeographic region, Colombia

Chemosphere. 2018 Feb;193:421-430. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2017.10.160. Epub 2017 Oct 30.


Mercury (Hg) is a harmful pollutant released into the environment from gold mining activities, representing a risk to human health and the ecosystems. The aim of this study was to assess the levels of total Hg (T-Hg) in human hair, fish, sediments and air; and to determine fish consumption-based risks for T-Hg ingestion in the Choco biogeographic region, a global biodiversity hotspot located at the Colombian Pacific. Mercury concentrations in hair were measured in two locations, Quibdo, the state capital, and Paimado, a riverine community. The median T-Hg value in human hair in Quibdo was 1.26 μg/g (range: 0.02-116.40 μg/g), whereas in Paimado it was 0.67 μg/g (range: 0.07-6.47 μg/g). Mercury levels in examined locations were weakly associated with height (ρ = 0.145, P = 0.024). Air T-Hg levels in Quibdo were high inside gold shops being up to 200.9-fold greater than the background. Mercury concentrations in fish from Atrato River were above WHO limit (0.5 μg/g), with highest levels in Pseudopimelodus schultzi, Ageneiosus pardalis, Sternopygus aequilabiatus, Rhamdia quelen and Hoplias malabaricus, whereas the lowest appeared in Cyphocharax magdalenae and Hemiancistrus wilsoni. Based on fish consumption, these last two species offer low risk to human health. Sediment samples from fifty different sites of Atrato River showed low T-Hg concentrations, with little variability between stations. However, contamination factors revealed a moderate pollution in 44% of sampling sites along the river. In conclusion, Hg pollution is widespread in the Biogeographic Choco and governmental actions must be taken to protect the population and preserve its biodiversity.

Keywords: Air; Fish; Hair; Health; Sediments.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biodiversity
  • Colombia
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis*
  • Environmental Pollution / analysis*
  • Fishes
  • Gold
  • Hair / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Mercury / analysis*
  • Mining*
  • Rivers / chemistry


  • Gold
  • Mercury