LIMA – Some 75 percent of houses built of adobe bricks made of mud from a river in the Andean region of Huancavelica in central Peru have higher levels of mercury contamination than the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization, or WHO, according to a study prepared by the U.S. Council on Environmental Health (COEH).
The non-governmental organization said in a communique that the excess of mercury in those rural homes could affect as many as 21,000 people exposed to inhaling or swallowing the heavy metal that impregnations those dwellings.
Since the year 2009 the study has measured the mercury level in 60 houses in Huancavelica and found that half of them have a concentration of the heavy metal higher than 75 milligrams per kilo in the walls and dirt floors, while the mercury vapor in the air was more than 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter in 24 houses.
The houses analyzed are in the neighborhoods of Yanayaco, Ascension, San Cristobal and Santa Ana, where families live in extreme poverty.
The study attributes the mercury in the buildings to the mud for making adobe bricks that was taken from the Ichu River, contaminated by the metal extracted from the Santa Barbara Hill mine in southern Huancavelica.
The U.S. organization warned that Huancavelica continues to be one of the most mercury-polluted places in the world after being mined for some 400 years until in the 1970s, when the processing of mercury was abandoned.
A preliminary evaluation also suggests that local fish from the Ichu River along with fish brought from the coast through Lima and the meat of alpacas are all contaminated in a proportion significantly higher than the levels established for its absorption into the tissues.
Constant exposure to mercury can cause a variety of symptoms such as headaches, irritability, depression, neurological and psychiatric disorders, and can even lead to death.
The COEH prepared a decontamination plan for Huancavelica that recommends replacing houses that have mercury levels higher than the WHO’s recommended maximum, and also calls for an analysis of the levels of the heavy metal in underground water and in animals, among other guidelines.