Encyclopedia of Environmental Health (Second Edition): Bolivia: Mining, River Contamination, and Human Health

Elsevier, Encyclopedia of Environmental Health (Second Edition), 2019, Pages 436-455
Jerry R. Miller and Lionel F. Villarroel

Multiple magmatic intrusions associated with the Eastern Cordillera and folded-thrust belt of the Andes Mountains led to widespread mineralization in Bolivia. Mining of these ore deposits by Pre-Columbian civilizations dates back to at least 2000 BCE, and included an increase in smelting of silver-bearing ores by pre-Incan metalsmiths at around 1100 CE. More intensive mineral extraction began with the discovery and subsequent mining of silver at Cerro Rico by the Spanish in 1545. Silver extraction at Cerro Rico turned Potosí into one of the most important cities in the world, and minted silver had a dramatic influence on both Peruvian and European economies. Mining, not only of silver, but of gold, tin, lead, zinc, and antimony, among other commodities, has continued to be an important component of the Bolivia economy to the present. An unintended consequence of mining has been widespread contamination of riverine environments by toxic trace metals and metalloids (e.g., arsenic, antimony, cadmium, mercury, lead, and zinc). The type, magnitude, and extent of metal/metalloid contamination as well as the potential effects on human health vary from river to river, but differ significantly between the humid to hyperhumid tropical rainforests in the north and the semiarid, heavily impacted, rivers in the south. Here, we explore river contamination and the potential health effects of mining in both regions.