Trace elements in sediments and fish from Atrato River: an ecosystem with legal rights impacted by gold mining at the Colombian Pacific

Environ Pollut. 2020 Jan;256:113290. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2019.113290. Epub 2019 Sep 25.


The Atrato watershed is a rainforest that supports exceptional wildlife species and is considered one of the most biodiversity-rich areas on the planet, currently threatened by massive gold mining. Aimed to protect this natural resource, the Constitutional Court of Colombia declared the river subject to rights. The objective of this study was to quantify trace elements in sediments and fish from Atrato watershed, assessing their environmental and human health risk. Forty-two trace elements were quantified using ICP-MS. Thirty-one elements increased their concentration downstream the river. Concentration Factors (CF) suggest sediments were moderately polluted by Cr, Cu, Cd, and strongly polluted by As. Most stations had Cr (98%) and Ni (78%) concentrations greater than the Probable Effect Concentration (PEC) criteria. Together, toxic elements generate a Pollution Load Index (PLI) and a Potential Ecological Risk Index (RI) that categorized 54% of the sediments as polluted, and 90% as moderate polluted, respectively. Hemiancistrus wilsoni, a low trophic guild fish species, had the greater average levels for Ni, Cu, As and Cd, among other elements. Rubidium and Cs showed a positive correlation with fish trophic level, suggesting these two metals biomagnify in the food chain. The Hazard Quotient (HQ) for As was greater than 1 for several species, indicating a potential risk to human health. Collectively, data suggest gold mining carried out in this biodiversity hotspot releases toxic elements that have abrogated sediment quality in Atrato River, and their incorporation in the trophic chain constitutes a large threat on environmental and human health due to fish consumption. Urgent legal and civil actions should be implemented to halt massive mining-driven deforestation to enforce Atrato River rights.

Keywords: Biodiversity; Choco; Colombia; Risk assessment; Sediment quality guidelines.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arsenic / analysis
  • Colombia
  • Ecosystem
  • Environmental Monitoring / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Fishes / metabolism*
  • Food Chain
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry*
  • Gold*
  • Government Regulation
  • Humans
  • Metals, Heavy / analysis
  • Mining*
  • Rivers / chemistry*
  • Trace Elements / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*


  • Metals, Heavy
  • Trace Elements
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Gold
  • Arsenic