Around 15% of the world’s gold is produced by small-scale miners; most of them use mercury to extract it from the ground. In Indonesia, the manufacturing supports some three million people, but the miners risk poisoning their children, themselves and the land.
Fahrul Raji, a man in his early 30s, is not feeling well. At the health center in Kereng Pangi, a town in Central Kalimantan surrounded by goldfields in Indonesia, he explains his symptoms.
Fahrul said “I often have a headache, and I am weak. I have a bitter taste in my mouth.”
According to Dr Stephan Bose-O’Reilly, who is examining him, slowly Fahrul is being poisoned by mercury. (According to BBC)
Bose-O’Reilly, a German medic who started studying the impact of mercury on Indonesians’ health a decade ago says “Fahrul’s been working with mercury for many years, and he’s showing the typical symptoms of mercury intoxication,” and also added “He also has a tremor and a co-ordination problem.”
Although mercury use in small-scale gold mining in Indonesia is illegal, miners still use it to extract gold from the soil or rock.
Mercury can attack the immune system, the cardiovascular system, the kidneys, and the lungs. Symptoms of exposure include tremors, twitching, headaches, vision impairment, and concentration loss and memory. Higher levels of mercury exposure could result in respiratory failure, kidney failure, and death.
According to CSIR senior researcher Riëtha Oosthuizen, the inhalation of mercury vapors is a significant threat to human health: “Although the miners handle mercury directly, it can also affect the environment. Exposure of people living in close proximity to mine sites is primarily via mercury vapors from amalgam burning or gold-melting, or via consumption of contaminated water or fish.” Yet, samples of the water and edible fish from that particular river exhibited normal levels.
Examples of gold mining-associated mercury pollution have been exposed for the U.S., Canada, China, Africa, Siberia, the Philippines, and South America. In most of Brazil, mercury concentrations in all abiotic materials, plants, and animals collected close enduring mercury amalgamation gold mining locations were distant in excess of allowable mercury levels promulgated by regulatory agencies for the protection of natural resources and human health.
Small-scale gold mining increases in response to climbing gold prices. Gold and mercury are interdependent commodities. When the price of gold raises so does mercury pollution. The source of this pollution is an out-of-the-way but widely practiced variety of small-scale gold mining, initiated throughout rural districts of the developing world. Fahrul Raji is just an example of many other gold miners who suffer this environmental disaster to make a living.