Listen: Dr Justin Chalker of Flinders University speaking with Stephen O’Doherty
‘Artisanal’ gold mining sounds like a lovely artistic cottage industry. The truth is, it is not in any way lovely.
Small scale or artisanal gold mining is a shocking litany of disadvantage, hideous health consequences for the miners, their unborn children, their communities and the environment.
For thousands of years humans have associated gold with wealth, splendour and power. This precious metal is very valuable and when we think of gold mining we naturally assume it involves big companies, and modern mining methods.
The very poorest of the poor are scrabbling for flecks of gold to provide the first world with mobile phones and luxury goods.
Surprisingly, about a quarter of global gold production is done on a tiny scale by desperately poor people who use the meagre income as a supplement to activities like subsistence farming.
This small scale or ‘artisanal’ mining is mostly unregulated and happens in remote locations in around 70 countries across the globe.
Of course, it is a terrible injustice that the very poorest of the poor are scrabbling for flecks of gold to provide the first world with mobile phones and luxury goods the miners will never know.
However, this is about much more than that glaring disparity. The use of mercury to extract gold from the ore is killing and disabling the miners, their unborn children, their communities and their environment.
The miners mix gold ore with liquid mercury using their bare hands and breath toxic fumes when they recover gold particles by boiling off the mercury.
The health dangers are critical and affect more than 15 million people.
Alarmingly, gold mining by these dangerous methods is on the rise.
What the miners don’t understand is that mercury is one of the most dangerous neurotoxins we know of.
Mercury accumulates in the body but the neurological damage it causes is not immediately obvious.
Symptoms of mercury poisoning include severe headaches, kidney damage, limb numbness, disturbing behaviour, brain damage.
Continued exposure makes victims lives miserable and can even kill them.
Additionally, mercury causes serious deformities and extensive brain damage to unborn children whose mothers are exposed to it.
The problem is not just the direct exposure as ore is processed.
The damage continues when the mercury is disposed of in soil or water which contaminates the food chain.
The release of mercury from vapours and tailings exceeds 1000 tonnes each year – accounting for 37% of global mercury emissions.
Science can stop this misery.
Alarmingly, gold mining by these dangerous methods is on the rise, particularly in poor and remote areas of Asia, Africa and South America.
It forms the backbone of an informal economy that operates without licenses or legal authorisation, making it especially difficult to enforce regulations about preventing mercury use.
An award-winning scientist Dr Justin Chalker, Senior Lecturer in Synthetic Chemistry at Flinders University has done a study that highlights just how serious this problem is.
He is calling for a united international effort by chemists to help solve this terrible problem.
He believes that science is the answer that can stop this misery. His team has already created a polymer made from waste canola oil and sulphur (a low-cost by-product from petroleum production) extracts mercury from polluted soil, water and air.
High tech and complex machines are not the answer to this problem.
“It is important to realise these are disadvantaged people that are simply trying to put food on the table for their families. Scientists need to come up with new extraction methods that don’t use mercury. It is also important to get the waste out of the food chain by developing ways to clean up the waste and remediate the environment.” explains Dr Chalker.
Much as we all love wiz bang solutions, high tech and complex machines are not the answer to this problem according to Dr Chalker.
“For the change to be put into practice by these desperately poor and uneducated miners, solutions have to be not only effective, they have to be a simple and cheap alternative to using mercury.”
Dr Chalker says you don’t need to be a scientist to act on the mercury pollution issue.
“Everyone can do their part in combatting mercury pollution by recycling fluorescent lights and batteries. They are also free to urge Australian MPs to ratify the UN’s Minamata Convention on Mercury.”
Dr Chalker says there are options for donating to non-profit agencies working on the problem.
“We have worked with Pure Earth an non-government organisation doing great on-the-ground work with artisanal miners and in remediating mercury pollution. ”
The founder and president of Pure Earth is an Australian, Richard Fuller.
In his acclaimed 2015 book, The Brown Agenda, Fuller says “By tackling cases of toxic pollution the world over, we score big wins for both the environment and humanity. And doing so is relatively simple. The technology to remediate even the worst toxic sites exists within the industrialized world, and remarkable clean-ups are often achieved with shockingly small sums of money.”
- Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), perhaps the greatest scientist that ever lived, suffered two serious bouts of uncharacteristically erratic behaviour. Some historians believe he suffered mild mercury poisoning. Newton was conducting experiments with mercury at the time of both occurrences.
- Until early last century mercury was used by Hat makers who often suffered mental illnesses – but no one realised it was caused by mercury. Hence – the “Mad Hatter” in Alice in Wonderland.
- It is over 60 years since the most horrific mercury poisoning disaster the world has ever seen took place in Minamata, Japan. ( rated as one of top ten worst environment disasters by Time Magazine) Mercury was in the waste product dumped into Minamata Bay on a massive scale by a chemical plant.
- The mercury contaminated fish in Minamata Bay. Locals ate the fish and became ill. Bird and domesticate animals died. In all, 900 people died and 2,265 people were certified as having directly suffered from mercury poisoning – including children born to mothers who had been exposed. It is now known as Minamata disease.
- On 1 February 2018, Nigeria became the 88th party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury which is a global UN treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.
- Australia has not ratified the convention.