Assessment of Surface Water Quality and Mercury Levels From Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) Along Acupan River, Benguet, Philippines

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Artisanal and small-scale mining activities are most evident among communities surrounding the Acupan River in Itogon Benguet. The mining activities include manual extraction of gold ores, use of improvised ball/rod mills and sluice boxes, and metallurgical processing such as cyanidation, carbon-in-pulp (CIP) and amalgamation. This study evaluates the influence of small-scale mining and the geology/mineralization of the Acupan Au-Ag-Te deposit to the water quality of the Acupan River and to the possible human exposures to Hg within the small-scale mining community. Different water quality parameters were monitored along selected sites along the Acupan River for a year and the results showed that the low average values of dissolve oxygen (DO) (2.54-4.53 mg L-1) and the relatively high average values of pH (8.84-10.10), sulfate (300.00-1133.33 mg L-1), nitrate (11.33-134.67 mg L-1), arsenic (As) (0.227-0.574 mg L-1) and mercury (Hg) (0.004-0.054 mg L-1) have exceeded the acceptable criteria limit of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for Class C waters. The exceeded values are noted to occur in areas where extensive small-scale mining activities are being done and have affected as well the downstream areas. To test possible human contamination in the use of Hg, hair samples from 56 volunteers were analyzed for total Hg (T-Hg) following standard protocols. The T-Hg concentrations in hair samples are mostly inorganic and are determined in various parameters such as sex, geographic location, occupation, age, fish consumption and localization in hair. Though not significantly different, higher Hg values are noted in males (1.280 ± 0.446 ng mg-1) than among females (0.651 ± 0.163 ng mg-1) as well as those with ages 41-50 years (3.130 ± 2.330 ng mg-1) as compared to other age groups. The higher amounts of inorganic Hg in human hairs could be attributed to the discrete yet prevalent use of amalgamation. The findings of this study emphasize the need for better regulations of the small-scale mining activities and for stricter implementation of the total ban on the use of Hg in ore processing to ensure better water quality of Acupan River as well as the health and safety of the communities surrounding the river.