Gov’t study confirms widespread mercury poisoning in 2 villages in Puerto Princesa City
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY–A recently concluded study by the health and environment departments in a highly populated community near an abandoned mercury mining site on the outskirts of this Palawan capital has recorded widespread cases of mercury poisoning among residents.
This prompted calls for a declaration of a health crisis and the immediate evacuation of residents in two villages here and mass treatment of victims.
A copy of the report’s summary, obtained by the Inquirer from the city government through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, showed that most residents of the villages of Sta. Lourdes and Tagburos, with a combined population of more than 10,000, are suffering from varying degrees of mercury poisoning due to constant exposure to mine tailings and ingestion of marine products contaminated by poisonous mercury ore.
The report was presented to Puerto Princesa City officials two weeks ago by officials of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) during a closed door meeting.
Local officials have yet to fully disclose the results of the study to the public but are coordinating with the DENR on plans to initially relocate over 80 families living around a 3-hectare lake that used to be an open pit mercury mining area. The mining company operated in the area between 1955 and 1976 and was exporting mercury to Japan, records showed.
The study, with most of the field work conducted from 2015 until last year and involved samplings from residents of Sta. Lourdes and Tagburos, discovered varying degrees of mercury poisoning in majority of residents tested.
“Blood mercury was elevated in the majority of residents both in Sta. Lourdes and Tagburos, 76.40 percent and 86.66 percent, respectively. Mercury was detectable in all the hair samples (91) examined, 5 of which were elevated more than 10 ppm (parts per million). Copper was present in the majority of residents both in Sta. Lourdes (97.75 percent) and Tagburos (86.66 percent) while cadmium was noted only in Sta. Lourdes (42.69 percent),” it said.
The study estimated that at least 38 percent of residents of Sta. Lourdes suffered from “chronic mercury poisoning.”
“The primary source of environmental exposure to mercury in the general population is maybe due to the consumption of contaminated fish. High levels of methyl mercury in the hair samples indicate that the route of exposure is through ingestion or consumption of fish. Levels of copper and cadmium noted on the residents need further investigation,” it said.
The report enumerated symptoms of the Minamata disease common among affected residents. These are gingivitis, discoloration of gums, nervousness, numbness, headache, palpitations and difficulty in sleeping, difficulty in concentrating, memory problems and respiratory problems.
Traces of other toxic minerals have also been found on their blood samples.
In a letter, Vice Mayor Nancy Socrates urged Mayor Luis Marcaida to create a crisis committee to deal with the situation, citing its health and social economic implications.
“The city government needs to have a concrete plan of action. We need to show that we are prepared to do what needs to be done to resolve [this issue] for good,” Socrates said.
Lawyer Carlo Gomez, city environment and natural resources officer, said he had endorsed the recommendation for evacuation of residents around the lake.
(Editor’s Note: For full details of this story, see Philippine Daily Inquirer print and tablet editions Thursday, June 8, 2017)