In French Guiana, environmental contamination by mercury comes not only from the geochemical background but also from past and present alluvial gold exploitation. From 1993, studies conducted by the InVS and Inserm revealed neurotoxic effects in Amerindian populations from Haut-Maroni, who are high consumers of mercury-contaminated fish. More recent studies have confirmed an impregnation of Amerindian children exceeding the standards recommended by WHO, an excessive impregnation which is nevertheless defined by geographical, ethnic and socio-economic factors. Mercurial steam emitted by "comptoirs" (trading houses) also contributes to exposure of workers and populations around, even if it is difficult to assess. The scientific day on mercury in French Guiana, organised in December 2004 by Afsse and InVS, did conclude, however, that in addition to implementing preventive measures adapted to the diversity of cultures and situations, there is a need to develop a global approach to health determinants, of which mercurial contamination is only one of the components. These guidelines were also discussed during a participatory seminar gathering people from the healthcare sector and Amerindian communities in Cayenne in June 2005.
In response to the joint solicited request of 23 July 2003 from the French Ministries of the Environment and Health to conduct an overview of the work carried out for several years in French Guiana and, particularly, since the publication of the collegial expert assessment by the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD) in 2001.
Afsset sought different information sources in mainland France, French Guiana and abroad before producing an overview entitled "health risks associated with mercury in French Guiana" submitted on 28 March 2004 to the French Ministries of the Environment and Health. After a public consultation, the final version of the overview was published on 21 June 2004.
This overview enabled a workshop on health risks associated with mercury in French Guiana to be organised with the InVS on 10 December 2004.
Accordingly, research bodies such as the IRD and CNRS (Mercury Programme in French Guiana), expertise bodies such as the INERIS, BRGM, INRS and health agencies Afssa and InVS (including CIRE Antilles-Guiana) were called upon to provide and present the most current information during this workshop. Decentralised state services in French Guiana also took part in this event by presenting the measures taken in French Guiana since the collegial expert assessment conducted by the IRD in 2001: the DRRT, DSDS and CGSS of Guiana. Participants were enlightened by the Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec, the IRD in Brazil and Bolivia and UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization - in partnership with the BRGM and Montpellier Faculty of Pharmacy) on communicating the health risks to the general population and workers and preventive means to the local authorities and communities. The Chair of the French Society of Public Health concluded the discussions by reviewing the proposed public health measures to take in French Guiana. The workshop organised by Afsset and the InVS recognised the need to put the issue of mercury in French Guiana into a broader public health context (diseases associated with water and access to water in particular, prevention of vector diseases, etc.)
During the workshop, alternative technologies to the use of mercury for alluvial gold exploitation were presented. The INRS presented its results on mercury concentrations found in gold "comptoirs" in Cayenne. UNIDO presented its work mainly focused on alternative technologies to mercury and the health risks for alluvial gold miners and their families.
These proposals have been presented during the meetings organised by the French Guiana prefectural services, particularly the DSDS, from 13 to 15 June 2005 in Cayenne. 13 June 2005 was an information day (for guests only) organised by the DSDS of Guiana on where knowledge currently stands on mercury and its health and environmental impacts in French Guiana. 14 and 15 June 2005 were set aside for discussions between healthcare workers and representatives of Amerindian communities of Haut Maroni and Haut Oyapock who drew up a consensual declaration available on the seminar's website.
Health prevention and risk assessment measures have been set up by the DSDS and CIRE Antilles-Guiana. Preventive action against mercurial pollution from alluvial gold digging sites and gold refining activities has been taken by the DRIRE. These measures form part of an objective of the French National Health and Environment Plan (PNSE/action 12) and feature in the regional health-environment plan of French Guiana.
Once the overview had been put online on xx xx 2004 and recommendations for action had been made, an active association in French Guiana (Association Solidarité Guyane) contacted Afsset, who then put them in contact with the DSDS.