New research undertaken by Associate Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett at Southern Cross University, and supported with funding from the ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme, is highlighting the environmental impacts of mercury contamination from small-scale mining.

Small-scale gold mining using mercury is practised by an estimated 50 million people around the world, including many local regions of the Asia-Pacific, and is increasing in response to higher gold prices. Researchers identified that there is a growing risk that ecosystems and fisheries could become dangerously contaminated with mercury, leading to serious health problems from the consumption of contaminated seafood by locals or visitors to the region.

An inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, purchased with support from an ARC LIEF grant, was used to analyse seafood and sediment samples from a region of the Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia where such small-scale gold mining is common.

The researchers discovered mercury concentrations in sediment of up to 82 times higher than recommended safe levels, and elevated concentrations in seafood, fish, molluscs and crustaceans for sale in the local fish markets.

The researchers are now working with local government and environmental agencies to balance the complex social and economic issues associated with small-scale mining and the risks to human health.

Image: Associate Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett.
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