Danish agency warns Indonesia of toxic mercury use in gold mining

According to Ben Barber’s recent blog on the Huffington Post website, thousands of people in Indonesia and other low income countries are poisoned by toxic mercury released into the air, land and water by small-scale gold miners in the countries.

Barber stated that 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.

“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,” states Peter W.U. Appel and Jesper Bosse Jønsson, in a fact sheet for the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS).

“Methylated mercury is water soluble and enters the food chain causing serious damage to humans who are at the top of the food chain.

“Methylated mercury is extremely harmful to the central nervous system, where it causes tremors, difficulty in walking, tunnel vision, psychological problems and eventually, death. There is no cure for permanent mercury poisoning.”

Now, GEUS is working with Blacksmith Institute in which Barber serves as a communication advisor to substitute toxic mercury with safe borax — a chemical used for centuries in soap and other products.

Borax as a means
The use of borax to substitute for mercury marks a new step in cleaning up the increasingly industrial and polluted Third World.

Borax reduces the melting point of metals and minerals allowing small-scale miners — often called artisanal miners — to extract and smelt their gold.

It may take between half an hour and an hour longer than the mercury method but borax does not harm the environment or people, it is cheaper than mercury and the gold produced is more pure, according to GEUS.

According to Appel of GEUS, 15,000 miners in the Philippines have been using borax to separate gold from ore for 30 years. Blacksmith is following the idea and bringing miners from the Philippines to train the Indonesian miners on the new technique.

The key, according to Blacksmith Institute, is to bring miners from the neighboring Philippines who can easily relate to the Indonesian miners. The project is carried out with the Indonesian government’s Ministry of Research and Technology and Ministry of Environment.

If artisanal gold miners around the world can be convinced to switch to borax, it would prevent the release of about 1,000 tons of toxic mercury a year, about 30 percent of the world’s mercury emissions, according to GEUS.

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