Each year tens of thousands of people are poisoned by toxic mercury spewed into the air, land and water by small-scale gold miners in Indonesia and other low income countries where production has soared as gold prices skyrocketed.
Now a U.S.-based NGO is working with a Danish government agency to substitute toxic mercury with safe borax — a chemical used for centuries in soap and other products.
Some 600 tons of mercury are released each year in Indonesia alone — more than the total mercury contamination in Japan’s Minamata Bay outbreak in the 1950s which left 1,700 dead and thousands more with neurological damage from mercury wastes.
These days, small-scale miners mix mercury with gold-laced ore to create an amalgam of gold and mercury. Further heating drives the mercury off as a vapor, wafting across downwind villages and falling into rivers during rains.
Mercury is concentrated in the flesh of fish which is then eaten by millions of people, including American and European consumers.
The precious gold remains behind. But so does damage to miners and hundreds of thousands of people living downwind of the processing operations.
“During amalgamation the metallic mercury evaporates [and] some of the vapour is inhaled by people working in the vicinity and may over time cause irreparable damage to their brains,” according to Peter W.U. Appel and Jesper Bosse Jønsson, writing in a fact sheet for the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS).
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