Research ArticleENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES

Artificial lake expansion amplifies mercury pollution from gold mining

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Science Advances  27 Nov 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 48, eabd4953
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd4953

Abstract

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is the largest global source of anthropogenic mercury emissions. However, little is known about how effectively mercury released from ASGM is converted into the bioavailable form of methylmercury in ASGM-altered landscapes. Through examination of ASGM-impacted river basins in Peru, we show that lake area in heavily mined watersheds has increased by 670% between 1985 and 2018 and that lakes in this area convert mercury into methylmercury at net rates five to seven times greater than rivers. These results suggest that synergistic increases in lake area and mercury loading associated with ASGM are substantially increasing exposure risk for people and wildlife. Similarly, marked increases in lake area in other ASGM hot spots suggest that “hydroscape” (hydrological landscape) alteration is an important and previously unrecognized component of mercury risk from ASGM.

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