An investigation of mercury sources in the Puyango-Tumbes River: Using stable Hg isotopes to characterize transboundary Hg pollution

Gary Schudel, Rebecca Adler Miserendino, Marcello M. Veiga, P. Colon Velasquez-López, Peter S.J. Lees, Sean Winland-Gaetz, Jean Remy Davée Guimarães, Bridget A. Bergquist

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Mercury (Hg) concentrations and stable isotopes along with other trace metals were examined in environmental samples from Ecuador and Peru's shared Puyango-Tumbes River in order to determine the extent to which artisanal- and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in Portovelo-Zaruma, Ecuador contributes to Hg pollution in the downstream aquatic ecosystem. Prior studies investigated the relationship between ASGM activities and downstream Hg pollution relying primarily on Hg concentration data. In this study, Hg isotopes revealed an isotopically heavy Hg signature with negligible mass independent fractionation (MIF) in downstream sediments, which was consistent with the signature observed in the ASGM source endmember. This signature was traced as far as ∼120 km downstream of Portovelo-Zaruma, demonstrating that Hg stable isotopes can be used as a tool to fingerprint and trace sources of Hg over vast distances in freshwater environments. The success of Hg isotopes as a source tracer in fresh waters is largely due to the particle-reactive nature of Hg. Furthermore, the magnitude and extent of downstream Hg, lead, copper and zinc contamination coupled with the Hg isotopes suggest that it is unlikely that the smaller artisanal-scale activities, which do not use cyanidation, are responsible for the pollution. More likely it is the scale of ores processed and the cyanide leaching, which can release other metals and enhance Hg transport, used during small-scale gold mining that is responsible. Thus, although artisanal- and small-scale gold mining occur in tandem in Portovelo-Zaruma, a distinction should be made between these two activities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)777-787
Number of pages11
StatePublished - Jul 2018


  • Artisanal- and small-scale gold mining
  • Contaminant geochemistry
  • Mercury
  • Mercury stable isotopes
  • Trace metal geochemistry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Chemistry(all)
  • Pollution
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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