Characterization and risk of exposure to elements from artisanal gold mining operations in the Bolivian Andes

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Abstract

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) offers low-skilled workers an opportunity to elevate themselves out of poverty. However, this industry operates with little to no pollution controls and the cost to the environment and human health can be large. The objectives of this study were to measure levels of arsenic (As), manganese (Mn), cobalt (Co), lead (Pb), and mercury (Hg) in the environment and characterize health risks to miners and residents in an area with active ASGM operations. An exposure assessment was conducted at two different mining sites and a nearby village in the Bolivian Anders. The resulting measurements were then used to quantify cancerous and noncancerous health risks to children and adults working at and living near ASGM areas. Soil concentrations of As were well above background levels and showed great variations between the village and mining area. Mercury vapor levels at the two mining sites were approximately 30 times larger than the EPA reference concentration. The risk of developing non-cancerous health effects were primarily due to exposure to As and Hg. The probability of individuals developing cancer was considerably increased with adult miners having a probability of 1.3 out of 100. Cancer potential was driven by exposure to As, with de minimus cancer risk from all other elements. Based on the environmental characterization of elements in soils and Hg vapors, the risk of developing cancerous and non-cancerous health outcomes were above a level of concern based on EPA risk assessment guidance. Personal protective equipment was not worn by workers and Hg amalgam is commonly heated in workers' homes. Better education of the risks of ASGM is needed as well as simple controls to reduce exposure.

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