A Duke University-led study has found dangerously high levels of mercury and its more toxic chemical cousin, methylmercury, in soils, sediments and rivers near artisanal gold mines in the West African nation of Senegal. Mercury poisoning can cause a wide range of health impacts, including tremors, muscle weakness, vision and hearing impairments, and loss of coordination and balance. In severe cases, it can lead to birth defects or death. Artisanal gold miners in Senegal and many other developing nations use mercury to separate gold ore from soil and sediments, often with inadequate safeguards to protect themselves or the surrounding environment. This process results in large amounts of mercury being burned off into the atmosphere or spilled into nearby soils and waters. Scientists previously believed that mercury from these mines is converted into its more toxic form, methylmercury, mostly in aquatic ecosystems. However, according to one researcher, this study conclusively shows that methylmercury is also being formed in soil systems. This newfound knowledge raises concerns that villagers could be exposed to mercury not only by eating contaminated fish from the water, but also by eating crops grown on contaminated soil or livestock grazing on this land.
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