Health risks: New initiatives being adopted to enhance mercury-free gold mining in Kenya

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Most workers don’t use protective gear when processing gold, which can cause serious health problems when handling mercury. PHOTO/DUNCAN MOORE/UN ENVIRONMENT

By TEAM

About three years ago, Eunice Atieno, an artisanal and small-scale gold miner in Osiri village, Migori County had her hair sample taken for testing. The results showed mercury concentrations of 0.489ppm.

This was just below the recommended 0.58ppm of mercury for women of child-bearing age according to Global Report: Mercury in women of child-bearing age in 25 countries. A joint study by IPEN, Biodiversity Research Institute and the Arnika Association.

Women like Eunice can rarely afford quality healthcare or an alternative source of livelihood, so we can only assume that this level has risen.

Mercury use is the most common extraction method used by artisanal and small-scale gold miners.When mercury is mixed into substances (like soil and sediment) that contain gold; it combines with the tiny gold pieces, separating them from the soil. The gold is then isolated by heating the mercury until it vaporizes.

The miners often use rudimentary equipment to do this such as a blow-torch or cooking stoves, and they often inhale the mercury, which has major consequences for their health according to a report; Inventory and mapping of mercury use in Artisanal small scale gold Mining (ASGM) sites in Migori, South Western, Kenya.

Mercury toxicity adversely affects the nervous, digestive and immune systems. Exposure also impacts lungs, kidneys, skin and the eyes. Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include impaired neurological development, which leads to deterioration of cognitive thinking, memory lapses, reduced attention span and difficulty with speaking and language development.

This happens especially in children- as well as impaired fine motor and visual spatial skills according to a 2017 report of the World Health organisation; Mercury and Health.

Griffins Ochieng, from the Centre for Environmental Justice and Development (CEJAD), acknowledged that the awareness of mercury toxicity among artisanal and small-scale gold miners is low.

This is because there have been little effort to increase public awareness on the dangers of mercury, especially regarding the health of miners and the environment, by relevant stakeholders such as the government and relevant Civil Society Organizations (CSOs).

Mercury cannot be legally imported for mining in Kenya; and interviewed miners admitted that the source of their mercury supply is unknown. Some believe it is smuggled into the country, while others believe that it is imported for industrial use and then diverted.

This diversion creates an informal and covert access channel that allows mine owners to access mercury and supply it to the gold miners.

Beyond the adverse health impacts of mercury contamination, mercury also poses a risk to the environment. Milton Oboka, a resident from Migori, identified some of these environmental problems.  The hazardous material often finds its way to Lake Victoria, polluting the water and harming the aquatic life.

Moreover, many locals continue to consume the water, oblivious to the contamination. A similar problem occurs from the use of sodium cyanide, another lethal alternative used by artisanal and small-scale gold miners to extract more gold. The sodium cyanide combines with mercury to form new harmful compounds that are dispersed in the water and end up in the human food chain.

Camarines Norte, Philippines: Mercury combines with gold to create an amalgam, which is then heated to evaporate the mercury, leaving only gold. PHOTO/VEEJAY VILLAFRANCA/UN ENVIRONMENT

Admittedly, the trade-off between health, environmental protection and economic gain is often complicated. This is because ASGM is usually poverty driven, thus economic gain usually takes precedence over safety.

Also, few miners use protective gear while mining, increasing their risk of a harmful accident, and Eunice acknowledges that, at times, she comes into contact with mercury throughbroken skin while extracting gold.

Moreover, mine pits are usually left open, jeopardizing the safety of the community, particularly children who could easilyfall into the unprotected pits. There are few procedures in place to safely shut down mines, which also means they are also at risk of collapse.

Nonetheless, more people are becoming aware of the safety and environmental implications of mining. In an effort to curb mercury contamination, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), in partnership with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), is conducting research on alternative ways to extract gold.

In Kenya, GEF has set aside over $4 million to support the government in creating policies and marketing incentives that favour mercury-free gold extraction. Additionally, GEF is also spearheading the campaign to stop mercury use by artisanal and small-scale gold miners.

The funds have been channelled to teach best practices in gold extraction and assist miners in financing mercury-free gold mining according to a report in The East African.

Bismarck Onyando, the chairperson of the Micodepro Association of artisanal and small-scale gold miners in Migori has also made efforts to curb mercury contamination.

He formed the Micodepro association to help artisanal and small-scale gold miners to come together and form a welfare association that would look into their needs.

A worker shovels tailings. Despite the health risks, mining is often the most viable livelihood for those involved. PHOTO/DUNCAN MOORE/UN ENVIRONMENT 

Through this association, CSOs and NGOs like Solidaridad, Diakonia and Haki Madini Kenya have made efforts to address mercury-free gold mining by educating miners on the health and environmental implications of using mercury and on the need to use protective gear while mining.

Micodepro has also introduced safer gold mining technologies that use less or no mercury: “borax”, a gravity concentration technique, produces more gold than traditional methods and is mercury-free, while “retort technique” captures mercury condensation in safely concealed containers.

Further to this, Micodepro has helped educate miners on licensing requirements (that were introduced by the 2016 Mining Act) for artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Despite intention of the Mining Act to better protect miners, licences are often prohibitively expensive and some of the requirements are challenging for miners to comply with.

Some artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) companies also complain of delays in receiving licenses, believing preference is given to large-scale gold miners.

Clearly there are still challenges that need to be addressed, but associations and community organizations are playing an important role in educating miners and helping them gain access to expensive licenses and technologies.

In essence, a sustainable mine should be safe, efficient, environmentally clean and profitable. Moving forward, it is critical that new technologies are made more affordable and are adaptable to the remote and under-resourced areas where ASGM is commonly practised.

Contributions to this story: Interviews by Akinyi Chemutai and Charity Migwi, written by Charity Migwi and edited Laura Docking. Additional editing, Patrick Mayoyo

This story is part of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s pilot Environmental Governance Programme for the Kenya group of Young Environmental Journalists.

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