Hair mercury levels in Amazonian populations: spatial distribution and trends.

Research paper by Flavia L FL Barbieri, Jacques J Gardon

Indexed on: 23 Dec '09Published on: 23 Dec '09Published in: International Journal of Health Geographics


Mercury is present in the Amazonian aquatic environments from both natural and anthropogenic sources. As a consequence, many riverside populations are exposed to methylmercury, a highly toxic organic form of mercury, because of their intense fish consumption. Many studies have analysed this exposure from different approaches since the early nineties. This review aims to systematize the information in spatial distribution, comparing hair mercury levels by studied population and Amazonian river basin, looking for exposure trends.The reviewed papers were selected from scientific databases and online libraries. We included studies with a direct measure of hair mercury concentrations in a sample size larger than 10 people, without considering the objectives, approach of the study or mercury speciation. The results are presented in tables and maps by river basin, displaying hair mercury levels and specifying the studied population and health impact, if any.The majority of the studies have been carried out in communities from the central Amazonian regions, particularly on the Tapajós River basin. The results seem quite variable; hair mercury means range from 1.1 to 34.2 microg/g. Most studies did not show any significant difference in hair mercury levels by gender or age. Overall, authors emphasized fish consumption frequency as the main risk factor of exposure. The most studied adverse health effect is by far the neurological performance, especially motricity. However, it is not possible to conclude on the relation between hair mercury levels and health impact in the Amazonian situation because of the relatively small number of studies.Hair mercury levels in the Amazonian regions seem to be very heterogenic, depending on several factors. There is no obvious spatial trend and there are many areas that have never been studied. Taking into account the low mercury levels currently handled as acceptable, the majority of the Amazonian populations can be considered exposed to methylmercury contamination. The situation for many of these traditional communities is very complex because of their high dependence on fish nutrients. It remains difficult to conclude on the Public Health implication of mercury exposure in this context.

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