Mercury in Artisanal Gold Mining

credit: Artisanal Gold Council

Mercury pollution is one of the greatest risks in artisanal gold mining, the term used to refer to small-scale mining done primarily by hand in more than 70 countries worldwide. Artisanal gold mining (ASM) produces about 20% of the world’s gold, and an estimated 20 million people conduct ASM.  ASM is also the world’s leading source of mercury release into the environment.

Miners use mercury to separate gold from ore and silt, in a process called mercury amalgamation. The mercury attracts and binds with the gold. The mixture (or amalgam) is washed to remove any remaining silt, and miners typically then light the amalgam of gold and mercury on fire, to burn off the mercury. The mercury is thus released into the air and waterways, causing risks to human health as well as watersheds.

Several mercury recapture (or retort) systems exist, though they are not used by the majority of artisanal miners or small-scale refiners and ‘gold shops.’ These reclamation systems not only prevent much of the release of mercury into the air and water, but also recapture the mercury -an expensive resource for artisanal miners- for re-use.  Green Leaf Gold and the EPA describe a couple of great examples of these devices:

Green Leaf Gold – Mercury Recovery a Success!

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – International Actions for Reducing Mercury Emissions and Use

While the reclamation systems drastically reduce the amount of mercury released into the air, water and land, the systems are a significant expense for artisanal miners. A miner who might bring in $300 a month in gold sales would have to spend half his/her monthly income on the device.

One of the biggest issues in mercury pollution and ASM is a lack of education about the dangers of mercury exposure. The United Nations Environment Programme works to “protect human health and the global environment from the release of mercury and its compounds by minimizing and, where feasible, ultimately eliminating global, anthropogenic mercury releases to air, water and land,” and describes the ASM sector as the largest global consumer of mercury.


For more information:

UNEP Global Mercury Partnership

Artisanal Gold Council

Mercury Watch

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

 credit: Artisanal Gold Council

credit: Artisanal Gold Council

credit: Artisanal Gold Council

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