Widespread mercury poisoning recorded in 2 Palawan villages

PALAWAN, Philippines (UPDATED) – Widespread cases of "chronic mercury poisoning" have been recorded in two remote barangays here, a joint study of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Health (DOH) revealed.

In a Health and Environment Assessment conducted recently, it was found out that many residents in the Barangay Sta Lourdes and  Barangay Tagburos, with a combined population of over 10,000, have varying health-threatening levels of mercury in their bodies. 

The barangays,  both in Puerto Princesa, are near an abandoned mercury mining site.

The report revealed that after taking hair and blood samples from residents in March, 39.53% of those tested in Sta Lourdes and 33.33% in Tagburos were found to be suffering from "chronic mercury poisoning” and required immediate treatment.

These residents live near a 3-hectare lake in Sta Lourdes which used to be an open pit mercury mining area of the defunct Palawan Quicksilver Mine, Incorporated (PQMI).

After exporting mercury to Japan from 1954 to 1976, PQMI left the area but its rehabilitation only began in February of this year.

Contaminated fish

The report further disclosed that majority of residents both in Sta Lourdes (76.40%) and Tagburos (86.66%) have elevated mercury in their blood. It was also detected in the 91 hair samples examined, 5 of which showed elevated mercury of over 10 parts per million (ppm).

Poisoning usually happens through "mercury vapor inhalation, ingestion, injection, and absorption through the skin.” In the case of these contaminated areas, residents continue to be at risk of contracting mercury as they are exposed to PQMI mine tailings, and continue to consume seafood caught in nearby tourist destination Honda Bay.

“The primary source of environmental exposure to mercury in the general population is maybe due to the consumption of contaminated fish. High levels of methylmercury in the hair samples indicate that the route of exposure is through ingestion or consumption of fish,” the report said.

Fish caught near the wharf along Honda Bay is a cause of concern as fish tissue samples tested by the DENR Mines and Geosciences Bureau turned out to have high concentrations of mercury that exceeded the limit given by the US Food and Drug Administration at 1.0 ppm, according to the report.

Minamata disease

When long exposed to "any form of mercury," any person can experience disturbances in their "neurologic, gastrointestinal, and renal organ systems," according to the World Health Organization.

Symptoms of Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning, was observed among affected residents, who were reported to experience gingivitis, gum discoloration, nervousness, lack of sensation, headache, memory loss, and respiratory problems, among others.

Aside from mercury, another toxic chemical like copper was evident in the majority of residents in both Sta Lourdes (97.75%) and Tagburos (86.66%), while cadmium was noted only in Sta Lourdes (42.69%). But these need further investigation, the report added.

Relocation, treatment

In response to the report’s recommendations, the city government is working on the immediate relocation and treatment of the 74 families living around the lake who were long told to stop catching fish there.

“As to the residents of the pit lake, we will find a relocation site. Phase by phase, we will relocate and we will look if the city government has an available site,” Mayor Luis Marcaida III told the media.

Marcaida added that a composite team will be formed to undertake a parallel investigation to look deeper into the report, which was presented to officials of the city government and other concerned agencies in a closed-door meeting two weeks ago.

Task Force Mercury

In a statement on Friday, June 9, the DENR said Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu ordered the creation of a task force within the department that will tackle the poisoning. 

The task force will be composed of experts from different DENR bureaus, and representatives from the DENR's legal service, its Mimaropa office, and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development. 

Among the duties of Task Force Mercury is to "isolate and contain the contaminated area, know the people who can possibly be treated by the DOH, and run after the mining company to make them liable."

Cimatu ordered the containment of the affected areas and the completion of a perimeter fence that will prevent residents from fishing by the pit lake. He also asked the DENR's Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau to conduct research on scientific interventions to rehabilitate the affected areas, and the legal service to study the accountability of PQMI. 

The DENR will also consult and coordinate with experts within and outside DENR to "ensure public safety."

"While the findings may still be inconclusive, our priority is to protect the community and the environment from the hazards of mercury," Cimatu said. 

He gave his assurance that his department would "act with resolve and urgency" in addressing the contamination. Rappler.com