Health and Artisanal Gold Mining

By Dr. Paleah Moher, Human and Ecosystem Health, AGC

Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining (ASGM) presents a complex development and health-impact situation. On one hand it provides livelihoods to tens of millions people in the developing world while contributing significantly to the global supply of gold. On the other hand ASGM is accompanied by serious environmental, social and health concerns. Here we discuss the health concerns and their solutions.

Generally sustainable solutions support the ASGM sector’s economy while also addressing the associated health problems. This can be realized through inexpensive safer mining practices that come along with increasing degrees of education and formalisation. Fortunately there are often economic incentives to drive such improvements.

Mercury is one of the main health concerns of ASGM. The use of mercury to amalgamate and extract metals from rock has been in practice for over 5000 years , mainly because it is a simple, expedient, and relatively inexpensive method. Today mercury-free extraction processes are readily available, as are simple mercury reduction technologies.

The release of mercury into the environment from ASGM is not only a serious health issue for the local people but it also contributes towards global health problems. When mercury is released into the air, it may travel long distances before it is deposited into waterways and soils. When this occurs, bacteria can convert mercury into an even more toxic form called methyl-mercury, which can bio-accumulate up the food-web. This results in predatory fish, such as tuna and marlin, having high mercury concentrations.

Mercury is a well known neurotoxin. When mercury enters the brain it causes permanent brain damage resulting in dizziness, difficulty in concentration, muscle twitching, poor muscle coordination, memory loss, blurred vision, and numbness in the hands and feet. These symptoms become much more pronounced when mercury exposure occurs in a child or fetus because the developing brain is still forming and therefore more vulnerable to mercury toxicity.

The degree of mercury toxicity depends on the level of mercury exposure, as shown here in order of decreasing seriousness:

  • Permanent overt brain damage
  • Seizures
  • Vision and hearing loss
  • Delayed childhood development
  • Language disorders
  • Deficits in fine motor functions
  • Memory issues

Often children in ASGM communities will develop mercury poisoning symptoms long before adults, even when their exposure is lower. Children may be exposed to mercury when mercury amalgamation and burning occurs in a home or near a village or worse when they are directly involved in amalgamation. If mercury-free processing is not available, mercury releases into the air can be minimized with the use of mercury-catching retorts. What is particularly important however, is for children and pregnant women to stay far away from mercury-related ASGM activities and to minimize their exposure to the toxic substance.

Although mercury gets a lot of attention due its global reach, ASGM is also associated with occupational safety concerns, poor respiratory health, and infectious diseases. Occupational health hazards such as shaft collapses and dust related lung diseases can be addressed through improved mining engineering and personal protective equipment. These safety measures can often be implemented by the leaders of ASGM sites and are therefore most readily implemented when there is a significant degree of organization and formalization. Fortunately, increasing organisation and formalisation also often results in increased gold recoveries and so there can be powerful economic drivers to contribute to improving health and making these improvements sustainable.

Some of the health issues of ASGM communities are related to the socio-economic conditions of the population rather than the mining activities themselves. For example malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malnutrition, inadequate access to clean water and sanitation are often associated with ASGM communities. Education and awareness, activities that also can come with increased organisation, are key methods in addressing such problems.

The health issues surrounding ASGM must be holistically addressed in order to create sustainable changes within the sector. Such actions are a part of the mission of the Artisanal Gold Council and require continued collaboration between members of artisanal mining communities, governments, health care providers, and all of the other stakeholders involved in this global industry.