Water pollution and environmental policy in artisanal gold mining frontiers:
The case of La Toma, Colombia

Lisseth Casso-Hartmann a,d , Paulina Rojas-Lamos b,d , Kelli McCourt a,e , Irene Vélez-Torres b,d , Luz Edith Barba-Ho b , Byron Wladimir Bolaños b , Claudia Lorena Montes c , Jaime Mosquera c , Diana Vanegas a,d,e,⁎


Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is the largest anthropogenic source of mercury emissions globally. Con- cern over mercury pollution increases due to its long-term impacts on human health and aquatic and terrestrial ecosys- tems. Using a participatory research methodology, we gathered social and behavioral information regarding daily practices and water usage by an ASGM community in Suárez, Colombia. Based on this information, we identified 18 sampling sites of water sources commonly used by the community. The samples were analyzed for total mercury, total coliforms, pH, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved oxygen. Physicochemical and microbiological parame- ters from the water assessment were compared with the drinking water thresholds set by the Colombian regulatory agencies, the EPA, and the WHO. Our results showed that the majority of the samples do not meet one or more quality and safety standards. On average, the sampling sites showed total mercury levels below the regulatory limits; however, the data had considerable variability, and in many cases, individual observations fell above the maximum concentra- tion limit for drinking water. We discuss these results within the larger framework of the regulatory gaps for human and environmental protection in ASGM contexts. The total lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure, combined with the long-term consumption of sublethal doses of mercury and other water contaminants, constitutes a significant threat to the well-being of communities and territories that necessitates further research and intervention by institutional authorities.

Keywords: Mercury, Water pollution, ASGM, Environmental racism.

* a Clemson University, Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, United States of America

* b Universidad del Valle, Facultad de Ingeniería, Escuela de Recursos Naturales y del Ambiente, Calle 13 no. 100-00, Cali, Colombia

* c Universidad del Valle, Facultad de Ingeniería, Escuela de Estadística, Calle 13 no. 100-00, Cali, Colombia

* d Interdisciplinary Group for Biotechnological Innovation and Ecosocial Change – BioNovo, Universidad del Valle, Colombia

* e Global Alliance for Rapid Diagnostics -GARD, Michigan State University, United States of America

Grafical abstract