Impact of mining on the metal content of dust in indigenous villages of northern Chile

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Indigenous communities from northern Chile have historically been exposed to the impacts of massive copper industrial activities conducted in the region. Some of the communities belonging to the Alto El Loa Indigenous Development Area are located less than 10 km from the “Talabre'' tailings dam, which contains residues from copper production and other metals that can be toxic to human health (e.g., As, Sb, Cd, Mo, Pb). Given the increasing demand of copper production to achieve net-zero emission scenarios and concomitant expansions of the tailings, the exposure to toxic metals is a latent risk to local communities. Despite the impact that copper production could generate on ancestral communities from northern Chile, studies and monitoring are limited and the results are often not made accessible for local communities. Here, we evaluate such risks by characterizing metal concentrations in dust collected from roofs and windows of houses from the Alto El Loa area. Our results showed that As, Sb, Cd, Cu, Mo, Ag, S, and Pb concentrations in these matrices can be connected to local copper mining activities. Additionally, air transport models indicate that high concentrations of toxic elements (As, Sb, and Cd) can be explained by the atmospheric transport of particles from the tailings in a NE direction up to 50 km away. Pollution indices and Health Risk Assessment suggested a highly contaminated region with a health risk for its inhabitants. Our analysis on a local scale seeks to make visible the case of northern Chile as a critical territory where actions should be taken to mitigate the effects of mining in the face of this new scenario of international demand for the raw materials necessary for the transition to a net-zero carbon global society.



Toxic metalMining emissionsPollution riskHealth risk assessmentAtacama, Mining emissions, Pollution risk, Health risk assessment, Atacama


Nicolás C. Zanetta-Colombo, Zoë L. Fleming, Eugenia M. Gayo, Carlos A. Manzano, Marios Panagi, Jorge Valdés, Alexander Siegmund, Impact of mining on the metal content of dust in indigenous villages of northern Chile, Environment International, Volume 169, 2022, 107490, ISSN 0160-4120,