Research on Mercury and Lead Exposure in Ecuador Presented at 2012 Conference in Quito

 Leo Buchanan Conference
Dr. Leo Buchanan presenting data in Quito, Ecuador

For 17 years, Dr. Leo H. Buchanan of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center has collaborated with Dr. S. Allen Counter of Harvard University, Dr. Fernando Ortega of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and other international colleagues to investigate the prevalence and effects of lead and mercury exposure in Andean children and adults from practices related to the making of ceramics and gold mining in many locations throughout Ecuador. Their work has been presented at a series of symposia and conferences in the United States, Sweden and Ecuador. The most recent conference, which was held in Quito, Ecuador in August, was entitled "International Conference on Lead and Mercury Exposure in Ecuador: Neurobiological and Neurocognitive Effects." Dr. Buchanan and his colleagues made several presentations at the two-day conference on their findings.


Ceramics is a common cottage industry in Ecuador, and in many impoverished villages, lead-glazing of ceramic roof tiles and artisan crafts is performed by adults, as well as children. Others in the villages are also exposed to lead when the ceramics are baked in kilns producing toxic smoke, which pollutes the air, soil and dwellings in the vicinity. Similarly, the gold mining industry produces contaminants when burning mercury amalgams to separate the gold from sediment or by discharging mercury-laden materials into nearby streams and rivers where people fish for food. The studies by Dr. Buchanan and his colleagues demonstrate high concentrations of lead and mercury in the blood systems of children and adults working and living in the rural villages. Study results also show neurocognitive effects that place children at risk of developing learning disabilities, including language deficits, visual-spatial reasoning problems, and motor skills impairment. Scientific articles related to this work have been published in a wide range of peer-reviewed journals, including Journal of the Neurological Sciences, Neurotoxicology, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, and Clinical Biochemistry.

Ecuador Village 
 The team shares their findings with people of one of the lead-contaminated areas

In addition to securing donations of chelation medication for the Ecuadorian doctors to treat the lead-poisoned children, the investigators have applied their results to develop education and prevention programs for the people in affected villages regarding the dangers of lead and mercury exposure and measures they can take to reduce the risks. Another important component of the bi-national Ecuador-USA team's work is to bring much-needed medicines and medical supplies to several remote, impoverished villages many miles apart while following up on some of the lead-exposed children. The team also met with the new Minister of Public Health of Ecuador, Minister Carina Vance Mafla, to update her on the situation of lead and mercury exposure in Ecuador and to elicit her assistance in prevention and education efforts.

The conference was co-sponsored by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University and Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Quito, Ecuador and held at the Medical School of the latter institution. The conference was free to all attendees, and was attended by medical students, faculty, professionals, villagers from the lead-contaminated areas, and the lay public.