MAC: Mines and Communities

Mercury poisoning and the gold curse

Published by MAC on 2013-01-14
Source: Statement, Reuters, AFP

High gold price worsens global health damage from mercury – UN     


10 January 2013

OSLO - High gold prices are driving up the use of toxic mercury in small-scale mining in developing nations, spreading a poison that can cause brain damage in children thousands of miles away, a UN study showed on Thursday.

Negotiators from 120 nations will meet in Geneva next week for a final round of talks meant to agree a treaty to reduce the use of mercury. It is mainly emitted by gold mining, where it helps separate gold from ore, and by coal-fired power plants.

A leap in gold prices to almost $1,700 an ounce from $400 less than a decade ago has spurred a surge in small-scale gold mining in South America, Africa and Asia which employs up to 15 million people, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) said.

Workers risk acute poisoning and, released to the air or washed into rivers and the oceans, mercury emissions spread worldwide.

Mercury, a liquid metal also known as quicksilver, can cause harm especially to the brains of foetuses and infants.

"Exposing infants and mothers to mercury is a cruel and increasingly unnecessary risk," Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, told Reuters by telephone from Nairobi, adding that there were cleaner alternatives to mercury in mining.

"A Chinese baby born today, just like an American or a Japanese or a Brazilian one, really shouldn't be condemned to have neurological damage as a result of mercury," Steiner said.

"The very high gold price has ... brought more people, especially at the poorest end of society, into the gold mining sector," Steiner said. UNEP said damage to health and the environment was increasing as a result.


Emissions of mercury from artisanal and small-scale gold mines more than doubled to 727 tonnes in 2010 from 2005 levels and now made up 35 percent of the global total, UNEP said.

Part of the surge reflected better data - some mines in operation for years had been unknown, such as in West Africa.

Eating fish is the main way mercury builds up in humans. It enters rivers and the oceans and accumulates as methylmercury in the bodies of fish, especially big predators such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tuna and sea bass.

The report estimated that human emissions of mercury totalled almost 2,000 tonnes in 2010, mostly from Asian nations led by China. It said that level had been roughly stable for the past 20 years despite efforts for deeper cuts after a peak in the 1970s.

Mercury also comes from natural sources such as volcanoes.

The U.N. plan is to hold an international conference in late 2013 in Minamata, Japan, the site of one of the worst industrial releases in the 1950s, to approve a new convention to restrict mercury based on texts to be agreed in Geneva.

Steiner expressed hopes that a U.N. convention would spur innovation by companies to cut mercury use. Technologies include filters for coal-fired power plants or substitutes in products such as thermometers, lightbulbs and dental fillings.

Many nations have tightened laws - the United States barred exports of mercury from Jan. 1, 2013. The European Union, until 2008 the main global exporter, barred exports in 2011.

UNEP's study did not provide an estimate for the overall health and environmental damage caused by mercury.

UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall said that limiting dangerous metals such as mercury could have huge benefits.

He noted that one study in 2011 put the benefits from phasing out another poison - lead in gasoline - at more than $2 trillion a year by reducing pollution linked to heart disease, diminished intelligence and even high crime rates.

Developing countries face higher risks from mercury: UN


10 January 2013

NAIROBI - Communities in developing countries are facing increased health and environmental risks linked to mercury exposure, the United Nations Environment Programme said Thursday.

"Mercury ... remains a major global, regional and national challenge in terms of threats to human health and the environment," said UNEP head Achim Steiner.

Parts of Africa, Asia and South America could see increasing emissions of mercury into the environment, owing mainly to the use of the element in small-scale gold mining and to the burning of coal for electricity generation.

Such exposure "poses a direct threat to the health of some 10-15 million people who are directly involved in small scale gold mining, mainly in Africa, Asia and South America," UNEP said.

The announcement comes ahead of a major conference on mercury to be held in Geneva next week and that aims to conclude discussions on a global treaty to minimise risks from mercury exposure.

New reports by UNEP, which will be made public at the Geneva conference, say emissions of mercury from artisanal mining alone have doubled since 2005, due in part to better reporting and rising gold prices.

Steiner said Thursday that a study by the Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based group that cleans up polluted sites, shows that a device costing less than $10 can be used to trap 90% or more of the mercury used in gold mining.

The main barriers to the use of such safer methods are socio-economic conditions and low awareness of the risks attached to mercury, a UNEP statement said.

UNEP's new studies provide the first global assessment of releases of mercury into rivers and lakes.

"In the past 100 years, man-made emissions have caused the amount of mercury in the top 100 metres of the world's oceans to double. Concentrations in deeper waters have increased by up to 25%," the agency said, adding that much human exposure to mercury is through the consumption of contaminated fish.

Serious mercury poisoning affects the body's immune system and can lead to problems including psychological disorders, loss of teeth and problems with the digestive, cardiovascular and respiratory tracts.

The reports also highlight rising levels of mercury in the Arctic, where 200 tonnes of the substance are deposited every year.

"Due to rapid industrialisation Asia is the largest regional emitter of mercury, and accounts for just under half of all global releases," the UNEP statement said.

The studies also highlight significant releases into the environment linked to contaminated sites and deforestation. The findings show that an estimated 260 tonnes of mercury -- previously held in soils -- are being released into rivers and lakes.

The International Negotiating Committee on Mercury will be held from January 13-18 in Geneva.

Mercury Treaty: Last Chance to Address Health Effects

Human Rights Watch

10 January 2013

A proposed international treaty to address the damaging effects of mercury should include specific provisions to protect the health of children and other vulnerable populations, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments are to meet in Geneva beginning January 13, 2013, for a fifth and final round of talks for the treaty. Mercury is a toxic metal that attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.

A proposed international treaty to address the damaging effects of mercury should include specific provisions to protect the health of children and other vulnerable populations, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments are to meet in Geneva beginning January 13, 2013, for a fifth and final round of talks for the treaty. Mercury is a toxic metal that attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.

So far, the draft treaty has been focused on the environment and neglected the important role that the health sector has to play in addressing the problems caused by mercury, Human Rights Watch said. Western governments have resisted including stronger health provisions.

"Delegates to the mercury treaty negotiations should seize this last chance and draft effective health strategies to prevent and treat mercury poisoning," said Juliane Kippenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Millions of people around the globe are exposed to mercury on a daily basis, in artisanal mining and elsewhere. There is a dire need for stronger prevention and treatment of mercury poisoning."

Human Rights Watch research has documented how small-scale gold miners use mercury to extract gold from the ore, and risk mercury poisoning as a result. At least 13 million people work as artisanal gold miners globally, including many children. Few are aware of the harm mercury can cause.

In Mali, Human Rights Watch interviewed children as young as 11 about their daily work with mercury. InPapua New Guinea, a doctor told Human Rights Watch researchers about the impact of mercury on small-scale gold miners: "We have dozens of cases of mercury poisoning. ....They stare blankly at the wall. You cannot talk to them, they are not conversant, nothing. They are like zombies. And we have several cases that did not recover."

Many health systems are ill-equipped to address mercury poisoning. During a Human Rights Watch investigation in Tanzania, a medical officer in a mining area expressed concern that health workers were "failing to diagnose" people suffering from mercury poisoning because they lack training.

A proposal by Latin American governments for a stand-alone article on health in the mercury treaty was a positive move, Human Rights Watch said. The article should require more public health information, research, surveillance, testing, treatment, and capacity-building of health systems to respond to mercury exposure. In a submission to governments, Human Rights Watch proposed specific language for a health article.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the fact that the current treaty article on small-scale gold mining requires parties to undertake public health activities for artisanal mining communities, but said this is not sufficient to address the problem. Mercury is used in a variety of areas, and as a result affects many different populations. Among other things, it is used in the production of chlorine, of poly vinyl chloride (PVC), a type of plastic, and of batteries, and in dental medicine. Burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, also significantly contributes to mercury emissions.

At the last round of negotiations, in July 2012, Western governments - in particular Canada, the United States, and European Union members - rejected including a stand-alone article on health, contending that treaty is primarily about the environment.

They indicated that including health strategies might interfere with the health sector and drive up the cost of the treaty's implementation. They also said that current references to health strategies in the draft text were sufficient. Their stance caused a heated debate with Latin American and African governments, whose representatives wanted a stronger health article.

"The position of the United States, Canada, and the European Union has been disappointing," Kippenberg said. "Wealthier countries should recognize that environmental andhealth strategies on mercury go hand in hand, and provide financial support for both."

The treaty is scheduled to be adopted toward the end of 2013 as the "Minamata Convention" in Japan. In the 1950s, the city of Minamata in Japan was the scene of one of the worst mercury poisoning disasters in history, in which more than 1,700 people died and many more suffered lifelong disease and disability. Japan has remained in the background, though, in the debate over including health strategies in the treaty.

"Today, Japan has a chance to say, ‘Never again,'" Kippenberg said. "It should take a lesson from Minamata and actively press to include health strategies in the mercury treaty."

Around the world, environmental degradation - including contamination from mercury - has resulted in the denial of rights, including the right to health, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should recognize international human rights law in the preamble to the treaty and integrate human rights into environmental law.

Mercury poisoning can cause a wide range of health problems. Mercury can attack the cardiovascular system, the kidneys, the gastrointestinal tract, the immune system, and the lungs. Symptoms of exposure include tremors, twitching, vision impairment, headaches, and memory and concentration loss. Higher levels of mercury exposure may result in kidney failure, respiratory failure, and death.

Mercury is particularly harmful to unborn babies and infants, and can be transmitted during pregnancy and through breast milk. It can cause irreversible damage to a child's development. Researchers have described mercury poisoning as an "invisible epidemic."

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on the dangers of mercury, please visit:

To read the Human Rights Watch report on the dangers of mercury in Mali, please visit:

To read the Human Rights Watch report on the dangers of mercury in Papua New Guinea, please visit:

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