Human Mercury contamination: an indicator of interaction between rural communities and a town along the Río Beni (Bolivian Amazon)

Celine Tschirhart, Pascal Handschumacher, Dominique Laffly, Eric Benefice

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Contamination by mercury in the Amazon basin is now a well-known problem which has been covered by various research projects and the media. Methylmercury is a neurotoxic that can particularly affect the normal psychomotor development of foetuses and young children. It accumulates in the aquatic food chain and becomes a hazard to people whose staple diet is fish. In the Bolivian Amazon, the populations of the Río Beni riverbanks are thus exposed. But are they all exposed to the same risk and if not, why? From the point of 108 entry of the Río Beni onto the flood plain to 110 km downstream, exhaustive surveys were carried out on the population in 15 riverside villages. The medical survey aimed at establishing a diagnosis of mercury contamination of 163 mothers and 393 children. Hair mercury content served as a bioindicator of mercury contamination. In order to establish a link between mercury contamination and systems of resource and territorial management,
questionnaires were carried out among 194 families. A significant relationship was established between socio-geographical systems and mercury contamination: those villages dedicated to agriculture and its commercialisation are far less exposed than those in which natural resources represent an important part of their activities, such as fishing, hunting and logging. As significant differences have been observed from one village to the next, the determinants causing these discrepancies along the river need to be studied more carefully. To answer this question, further detailed questionnaires were carried out on a sample of 50 families as well as interviews of various territorial actors. This study shows that one of the great determining factors for these differences is the undeniable influence of a small town (Rurrenabaque). This town is a centre for commerce, local government, non governmental organisations and services, which influence the way communities manage
their resources and which, consequently, influences their diet. Mercury contamination reveals the different ways in which these communities interact with the town, which partly depends on distance but not only. Mercury contamination of humans is not inevitable in a contaminated environment.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2011
Event114th International Medical Geography Symposium - Durham, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Jul 201115 Jul 2011


Conference114th International Medical Geography Symposium
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom

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