Scientists Find Elevated Levels of Potentially Toxic Metals in Some Guatemalans Living Near Canadian-owned Mine, Recommend Further Studies

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jim Erickson
University of Michigan
ericksn [at] umich [dot] edu
+1-734-647-1842

Benjamin Greenberg
Physicians for Human Rights
bgreenberg [at] phrusa [dot] org
+1-617-510-3417

Scientists Find Elevated Levels of Potentially Toxic Metals in Some Guatemalans Living Near Canadian-owned Mine, Recommend Further Studies

WASHINGTON - Environmental health scientists from the University of Michigan find
that a sample of Guatemalans who live near a controversial gold and
silver mine in the country's western highlands have higher levels of
potentially toxic heavy metals in their urine and blood than a sample
of residents who live farther from the mine.

Looking at environmental impacts, the scientists also find
significant differences in the quality of water samples taken from
creeks just downstream from the mine, as compared to a site upstream
and a river farther downstream. The scientists warn that metals
exposure caused by the mine is likely to increase over time, and could
last for decades.

"Little is known about the cumulative and combined health impacts on
humans — especially children — following chronic exposure to complex,
real-world mixtures," said Dr. Howard Hu of the U-M School of Public
Health, co-author of the Marlin Mine report with Niladri Basu,
assistant professor of environmental sciences in the School of Public
Health.

"That's why it is imperative that large-scale, long-term
epidemiological and ecological follow-up studies be conducted," Basu
said.

The scientist's study, which was coordinated and published today by
Physicians for Human Rights, examines the health and environmental
impacts of the Marlin Mine, owned by Canada's Goldcorp company through
its Guatemalan subsidiary, Montana Exploradora, Inc. The study finds
that a sample of residents living near the mine have higher levels of
mercury, copper, arsenic and zinc in their urine, and of lead in their
blood, than a sample of persons living seven kilometers away.

A delegation, including the study's lead scientist, presented the
findings to villagers in Guatemala today, some of whom had concerns
that a range of physical ailments were caused by the mine.

The study cautions, however, that it is "not clear if the current
magnitude of these elevations pose a significant threat to health."
Although each metal tested is toxic at high enough levels, none of the
levels in the samples exceed those considered acceptable by the U.S.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention and by widely recognized
scientific standards.

The Marlin Mine opened in 2005 and is expected to remain in operation for most of this decade.

The study recommends that follow-up health and environmental studies
be overseen by an independent panel. "This panel would allow for a
forum that is transparent and inclusive, and it would facilitate
dialogue amongst the stakeholders," the report says.

In releasing this study, Physicians for Human Rights noted that the
report implicitly delivered a message to the government of Guatemala
regarding its obligations to its citizens. "The State is responsible
not only to protect citizens from harms to their health from possible
environmental contamination; it also has positive obligations to
prevent new future health risks that may be caused by this mine and
other mines," said Susannah Sirkin, deputy director for Physicians for
Human Rights.

The authors caution that the study, based on biological samples
drawn from 23 individuals during a one-week visit to the vicinity of
the mine in August 2009, cannot be viewed as definitive, but rather as
a preliminary baseline study. Still, the results show "qualitative and
generalized trends that enable conclusions to be drawn."

Samples from creeks near the mine have significantly higher levels
of pH (a measure of acidity), conductivity and temperature, as well as
aluminum, manganese, cobalt and, in one creek, arsenic. Researchers
also compare a sample of mine workers to a sample of non-mine workers,
finding no significant difference between the levels of heavy metals in
their urine and blood. Because the mine workers have access to a better
diet and to medical services provided by the mine, they consider
themselves to be in better general health.

The study does not find any significant association between levels
of heavy metals and the severe skin rashes and respiratory illness
reported by some persons living near the mine, especially children and
the elderly. However, the study took no urine or blood samples from
children, because of the informed consent protocol approved by the
university's Institutional Review Board. Nor did it take samples from
the persons who had complained. Skin rashes and respiratory effects,
the study notes, are consistent with exposure to cyanide, which is used
at the mine, but was not analyzed in the study.

The research was conducted at the request of the Independent
International Panel on the Human Rights Impacts of the Marlin Mine, a
four member panel composed of three academics from the Center for Civil
and Human Rights of Notre Dame Law School and a lawyer from Oxfam
Americas. The Panel will draw on the study as one component of its
analysis. Funding for the study was provided by the Due Process of Law
Foundation, based in Washington, DC.

The panel engaged Physicians for Human Rights and the University of
Michigan team to conduct an independent and impartial analysis of the
mine's health and environmental impacts. Physicians for Human Rights
mobilizes the health professions to advance the health and dignity of
all people by protecting human rights. The group shared the 1997 Nobel
Peace Prize.The Marlin Mine is located about 185 miles northwest of
Guatemala City. It consists of two open pits and one underground mine.
A cyanide leaching process is used to extract gold and silver from
crushed ore.

Goldcorp is actively prospecting dozens of other sites in the region near the Marlin Mine.

###

PHR was founded in 1986 on the idea that health professionals, with their specialized skills, ethical duties, and credible voices, are uniquely positioned to investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them. PHR mobilizes health professionals to advance health, dignity, and justice and promotes the right to health for all.

Share This Article

More in: