Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Impacts of Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon (2018-2019)

In 2013, Bass Connections helped launch one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of mercury exposure due to artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) anywhere on the planet, in Madre de Dios, Peru. ASGM is the largest source of global mercury (Hg) pollution and the leading cause of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Hg is a potent neurotoxin that impacts human and wildlife health. When Hg enters aquatic systems, it is transported downstream, and the concentration of Hg near mining and downstream should be higher than in upstream areas. However, Duke research in Madre de Dios suggests that average hair Hg concentrations (a standard biomarker of total Hg exposure) in communities more than 150 km upstream of ASGM are 115% that of mining communities and 145% that of downstream communities. These high concentrations upstream of ASGM are also apparent in top predators, as one study has shown elevated mercury concentrations in giant otters (a protected species) within Manu National Park in Peru.

This Bass Connections project team engaged in research and fieldwork to identify how Hg is entering the environment in communities upstream of ASGM, measure variability of mercury methylation processes across the landscape and determine the impact of forest cover and deforestation on mercury deposition and microbial methylation processes. Team members received training on biogeochemical cycling of mercury and forest ecology specific to Madre de Dios, designed a research strategy for environmental data collection and traveled to Peru to collect environmental samples.


Summer 2018 – Spring 2019

Team Outputs

Jacqueline R. Gerson, Natalie Szponar, Angelica Almeyda Zambrano, Bridget Bergquist, Eben Broadbent, Charles T. Driscoll, Gideon Erkenswick, David C. Evers, Luis E. Fernandez, Heileen Hsu-Kim, Giancarlo Inga, Kelsey N. Lansdale, Melissa J. Marchese, Ari Martinez, Caroline Moore, William K. Pan, Raúl Pérez Purizaca, Victor Sánchez, Miles Silman, Emily A. Ury, Claudia Vega, Mrinalini Watsa, Emily S. Bernhardt. 2022. Amazon forests capture high levels of atmospheric mercury pollution from artisanal gold mining. Nature Communications 13(559).

Impacts of Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) in the Peruvian Amazon (poster by Kelsey Landsdale, Eliza Letourneau, Melissa Marchese, Christian Lara, Tatiana Manidis, Natalia Rivadeneyra, Jacqueline Gerson, presented at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019)

Resumen Cientifico: Epidemiologia ambiental de MAPE en la Amazonia Peruana

Project team site


Melissa Marchese

Chris Lara

Emma Palmer

This Team in the News

Research Methods and Creative Outputs from Interdisciplinary Teams

Duke Researchers Make an Impact in the Jungles of Peru

Senior Spotlight: Reflections from the Class of 2021

The Scientists Restoring a Gold-mining Disaster Zone in the Peruvian Amazon

Six Duke Research Projects Awarded Catalyst Program Funding

Meet the 2019 Recipients of Bass Connections Student Research Awards

Faculty Perspectives: Emily Bernhardt

These Seniors Took Their Bass Connections Research Further and Graduated with Distinction

Nicholas Institute Awards Catalyst Funding to Five Duke Research Projects

Five Duke Research Projects Awarded Catalyst Program Funding

Public Policy Graduate among Three Hart Fellows for 2019-2020

Six Duke Research Projects Awarded Catalyst Program Funding

Emily Bernhardt on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

MIDP Fellow Chris Lara on Artisanal Gold Mining in Peru

Four Weeks in Madre de Dios, Peru

DGHI’s Unique Approach to Global Health

Bridging the Science-Policy Gap on Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon

Bridging the Science-Policy Gap

3 Questions with DGHI Researcher Ernesto Ortiz

The Poisoning of the Amazon

When Plans Unravel, Flexibility Is Key

Ten Lessons Learned in the Peruvian Amazon

For Three Students, Research Trip in the Amazon Takes Unexpected Twists and Turns

In the Peruvian Amazon, a Boat Trip Reveals Birds, Wildlife and 120 Gold Mining Operations

Notes from the Peruvian Amazon: Mining and Mercury on the Madre de Dios

See related teams, Impacts of Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon on Aquatic Ecosystem Biodiversity (2019-2020) and Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Impact of an Oil Spill in the Peruvian Amazon (2017-2018).

The team in Peru

Team Leaders

  • Emily Bernhardt, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • William Pan, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/graduate Team Members

  • Jacqueline Gerson, Ecology-PHD
  • Christian Lara, Latin Am/Caribbean Stdies-Cert
  • Tatiana Manidis, Master of Environmental Management, Ecotoxicology & Environmental Health
  • Astrid Rivadeneyra, Master of Laws

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Kelsey Lansdale, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Eliza Letourneau, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Melissa Marchese, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Ernesto Ortiz, Duke Global Health Institute

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Gabriela Salmon-Mulanovich, PRISMA, Peru