The wailing newborn had just gone from purple to pink when researchers from Duke University whisked her out of the delivery ward and started collecting fingernail clippings and saliva swabs.
Investigators are hoping that Sofia, and infants like her, can provide clues about how rampant gold mining in this swath of southeastern Peru is harming people who have never set foot in a mine — or, in this case, are barely a minute old.
This part of the Peruvian Amazon has been overrun by 30,000 to 50,000 gold miners, many of them illegal, who are flocking to feed global demand for bullion, jewelry and smartphone components. Much of the precious metal produced in places like Puerto Maldonado is exported to the United States, including Miami, where there’s little awareness about its far-reaching health implications.
The miners rely on toxic mercury to isolate and bind small flakes of gold into larger chunks that can be sold. But there’s a dangerous byproduct of the process. According to the Artisanal Gold Council, a Canadian nonprofit that works with local miners and policymakers to reduce toxic emissions, more than 90 tons of mercury every year ends up in the air, rivers and streams of the Madre de Dios region of Peru, often harming communities far removed from the mines.
“We know that mercury exposure isn’t only concentrated in mining zones. It’s also in areas that are very far away,” said Ernesto Ortíz, who is overseeing the study of pregnant women and their offspring in Peru with the Duke Global Health Institute. “And it’s causing long-term problems that are irreversible. It’s condemning children for life.”
The health effects of mercury — like the fluid metal itself — are hard to pin down. What most of us know as mercury, the silvery liquid in thermometers, is elemental mercury that, while still a health risk, is difficult for the body to absorb.
Once that mercury is dumped into a river, however, naturally occurring bacteria turn it into methylmercury, a powerful neurotoxin that can wreak havoc on the nervous system, particularly in developing infants.
As bottom-feeding fish suck up contaminated sediment, and are then eaten by larger fish, methylmercury is magnified up the food chain until it accumulates in dangerously high doses in fish like the mota punetada and catfish — dietary staples for many rural villagers.
As a result, idyllic-looking riverside communities sometimes have higher mercury exposure than debris-riddled mining towns, in part because miners often have access to other sources of protein like chicken and beef.
Luis Fernandez, the executive director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation, or CINCIA, said studies show that rural indigenous communities in this part of Peru have about three times higher mercury levels than “non-native” city dwellers. And the children in those villages have mercury levels 3.5 times higher than average.
While deforestation, pesticides and burning garbage can also release mercury into the air, the primary culprit in this region is gold mining, Fernandez said. And pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
Methylmercury “can cross the placental boundary and, because the neurological systems are in development, they get hammered,” he said. “The cognitive and neurological damage is permanent so they basically have deficits for the rest of their life.”
The disconnect between the mines and the victims of that mining has made it a challenge to communicate the dangers of mercury exposure.
Many in the mining industry who have been exposed to the less toxic form of mercury for generations are openly hostile to the idea that the liquid metal — central to their work as gold miners — might be a problem.
In mining communities across South America, many believe that health warnings and tightening regulations are part of a shadowy conspiracy to drive small operations out of business in favor of multinational mining conglomerates that have the resources to use state-of-the-art equipment.
Luis Otsuka, the governor of the Madre de Dios region and a gold miner, says he believes that the worries and rules around mercury are overblown to benefit environmental “mafias” at the expense of people who live in the community.
He says conservation groups, backed by the United States and Europe, have kept this part of Peru in abject poverty in the name of protecting the environment.
“They come here and tell us that we can’t touch a tree or eat the fish because they won’t allow it,” he said of the environmental groups, which he has sometimes tried to shut down. “They’re the ones who should be starving to death, not the people from these communities.”
That Otsuka, one of the region’s most prominent men, is suspicious of the mercury activism indicates just how difficult it is to raise the alarm.
One of the challenges is that the effects of mercury contamination are often long-term and can’t be seen with the naked eye, said Juan Loja, with the Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin (ACCA).
It’s difficult to explain to a community that, absent mercury exposure, their children might have been smarter and less aggressive, or might have more self-control, he said.
“We know about a lot of communities where children just can’t pay attention and studies have shown there’s been mercury exposure,” he said. “But until we have visible health effects, there will always be mercury in Madre de Dios.”
Even so, there has been growing awareness about the problem. The country has ratified the United Nations’ Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty that forces it to limit mercury use, and in 2016, the health ministry declared a state of emergency in 11 municipalities of Madre de Dios due to mercury contamination. In addition, the mayor of Puerto Maldonado, defying the governor, banned shops that bought unrefined gold and pumped mercury vapor into the air.
But nestled into a commercial neighborhood in Puerto Maldonado, clandestine shops are still buying chunks of dirty gold mixed with mercury, or “retorta,” and burning off the excess mercury with blowtorches.
Freddy, who wouldn’t provide his last name because he was breaking the law, demonstrated the process without using a mask or any ventilation equipment. While he isn’t convinced about mercury’s health risks, he says he would be happy to get out of the illegal mining trade, if he could find some other way to make a living.
“Nobody in their right mind wants to work in a mine or kill trees or have to deal with mercury,” he said. But he complained that the government has failed this region by not providing other viable ways to make a living.
ACCA, the environmental group, and others have been promoting small business initiatives to wean miners away from the trade. But it’s a tough sell.
On a recent weekend, Nemesio Barrientos, 64, was feeding some of the 3,000 fish he’s raising in artificial ponds, as part of an ACCA-backed project.
With illegal mining camps on three sides of his property, Barrientos said his business stuck out like an “ugly duckling” in the area.
Barrientos is proud that he’s running an environmentally friendly operation that’s providing mercury-free fish to the local community. But he talks about his neighbors with a touch of envy.
“Those of us who run legal operations have to pay our taxes and face inspection and there are so many hoops we have to jump through,” he said. “If you’re an illegal miner, you’re not paying any taxes. Why is the government pressuring me and not everyone else?”
While security forces sometimes raid illegal mines, authorities have been unable — or unwilling — to stop mining from spreading into national parks and other sensitive areas.
Duke may be able to boost that effort, though. If all goes as planned, sometime next year researchers will be able to draw additional conclusions about mercury’s long-term legacy in the region, and how factors like malnutrition and anemia might magnify its toxic effects.
Making those connections will be key to forcing politicians to take illegal mining seriously, Ortiz said.
“We’re hoping to produce even stronger evidence” of the health impacts, he said. “But changing the minds of politicians is a huge challenge.”
Follow Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss