UN Agency Seeks to Curb Mercury Use in Gold Mining

Artisanal gold mining refers to small-scale mining operations that often use basic tools and methods to extract and process metals and minerals. These operations often rely on toxic methods and tools to mine gems and metals, with the miners themselves working in hazardous conditions with little regulation regarding health and environmental pollution standards.

According to planetGold program manager Ludovic Bernaudat, more than 100 million people earn their living from artisanal gold mining. Artisanal gold mines produce up to 20% of all the gold in the world and are responsible for more than 35% of the globe’s mercury pollution.

A 2018 UNEP Global Mercury Assessment estimated that artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) releases more than 2,000 tons of mercury into the land, air and water every year. planetGold is an initiative led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and funded by the Global Environment Facility. It was launched in 2019, and it aims to cut mercury use by 512 tons, reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 400,000 tons, and improve more than 1.2 million hectares of land.

Artisanal gold mining is one of the industries this initiative is looking to address because of its rampant use of mercury coupled with hazardous working conditions. An estimated 20 million people across 80 countries are involved in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, with most of them living in rural areas and countries with limited economic opportunity. Over four million women and children are involved in these operations, and they are often exposed to hazardous conditions due to a lack of training and safety equipment coupled with the presence of dangerous chemicals such as mercury.

Mercury is a toxic contaminant that does not degrade in the environment and can build up in the environment before entering the food chain and causing systemic damage to the ecosystem. Denver Suzara, president of a Philippine mining association, says that miners don’t like using mercury, but they simply have no choice.

In East Africa, more than 250,000 young Kenyans have become small-scale gold miners, but these miners struggle to access proper equipment. planetGold is working to eliminate mercury from the gold supply chain in Kenya and more than 20 other countries by raising awareness and providing miners access to financing, technical solutions and formalization.

Given that the ASGM sector is severely undercapitalized, increasing access to financing will allow artisanal and small gold mines to obtain the necessary expertise and proper equipment for the job. Additionally, providing technical solutions, better practices and alternative technologies will reduce the risk of negative impacts on miners’ health and their communities while increasing their take-home.

As more miners join the ranks of established entities such as Freeport-McMoRan Inc. (NYSE: FCX), the use of dangerous substances such as mercury will reduce and safety will drastically improve.

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