How one country is grappling with mercury emissions from artisanal gold shops – by Paula Dupraz-Dobias (Chemical & Engineering News – March 16, 2020)

The central market was bustling in Puerto Maldonado, in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. On one end of the market, diners sat on plastic stools shaded from the oppressive noon heat as food was prepared at the many open-air stands. Vegetables, fruit, and piles of locally harvested Brazil nuts were displayed nearby. Toddlers played on the ground in front of their parents’ booths.

Across the street, past a row of motorcycle taxis, more children played along the sidewalk, in front of a strip of open-front businesses advertising the purchase and sale of gold.

Such a scene is a common one in many towns in the region, which produces an estimated 15–20% of Peru’s gold exports. Worldwide, artisanal and small-scale gold mining represents about 10% of the world’s gold supply, and some 100 million people depend on such mining for survival, according to the Fairtrade Foundation, which works to promote fairer trading conditions.

With gold prices currently at a historical high, miners like those in the Peruvian Amazon, many of whom come from poor Andean communities, are attracted to the sector as a means of improving their lives.

What goes unseen are the toxic emissions from the rudimentary refining taking place within the many gold shops. Shop workers use mercury to separate the gold from other minerals and then burn off the mercury to yield pure gold. Depending on how open the shops are or how equipment is vented, “when they heat the gold up, the pollution travels down the street,” says Adam Kiefer, a chemistry professor at Mercer University.

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