Gold is a rare and precious metal, symbolising wealth and high status. Its value has recently reached a staggering $1,800 per ounce and its demand continues to shine.
With gold prices remaining high amid weakened economies and fears of a global recession, more people are turning to illegal or unregulated mining to survive.
Over 60 million people depend on artisanal mining (ASM) to earn their bread according to a 2019 estimate from the World Bank. From Africa to South America, millions of people, including children, work in small gold mines. Gold mining is the leading commodity when it comes to artisanal mining, with the informal sector extracting almost 20% of the global gold supply. For many individuals, this activity presents the only opportunity for employment and a path out of poverty.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a vital source of income and path out of poverty, but it is also very dangerous because miners use toxic mercury to separate the gold from the ore. Estimates report that 25 – 33% of miners suffer from chronic intoxication from metallic mercury vapour (International Labour Organization).
Exposure to mercury has irreversible toxic effects on the environment and to our health from memory loss, neuromuscular changes, and lung, cardiovascular and reproductive defects to impaired vision and kidney damage. In higher exposer situations, mercury can kill.
Environmental degradation is another side effect. Mercury enters the atmosphere, washes from mine tailings into rivers, lakes and oceans and converts to bioavailable, highly toxic methylmercury, contaminating fish and other aquatic life, building to dangerous levels in the food chain and contaminating food supplies. There is a growing flow of mercury into the rainforests of the Amazon basin for example. Today, Brazil is among the world’s top 10 exporters of gold. Between January and May 2022, the country had already exported 46.9 tonnes of gold, with the bulk of it being mined illegally.
The use of mercury for gold extraction is the main source of mercury pollution across the globe. It accounts for 37 per cent of all mercury emissions.
Toxic gold practices and mercury pollution continues to be a pervasive and global issue with serious consequences for millions of miners, vulnerable women and children, indigenous peoples, and ecosystems.
So, what can mining companies, governments, and international organisations do to eradicate mercury from mining?
- More training for ASM
- Better tools and technology;
- Better education on the adverse effects of mercury in ASM communities;
- Eliminate the need for artisanal miners to use polluting and dangerous mercury extraction methods by purchasing the gold-bearing rock at market rates
- Strengthen The Minamata Convention
In the coming weeks, we will be taking a deeper dig into the world of gold mining in ASM communities especially in the countries Emiral work in and explore the challenges and solutions.
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