Jan 8, 2016

Millions of people being contaminated with toxic mercury used in mines via @cbcgreg

The largely unregulated use of mercury has created a major worldwide environmental hazard

Brandon Nichols knows first hand what it's like to get poisoned by mercury.
"I got mercury poisoning two or three times," he told CBC news. "I got some serious headaches."

The University of British Columbia grad student had been in South America, researching small scale gold mining operations in Ecuador and their use of mercury.

Mercury is widely used by the miners because it bonds with gold, allowing it to be more easily separated from the ore hauled out of countless mines dotting the countryside.

Toxic Mess
The widespread use of the toxic liquid metal is creating a long lasting environmental hazard that starts with ore processing and travels all the way up the food chain. But much of it is hidden in remote corners of the developing world so it's receiving little attention.

Nichols shot hours of video as he researched mining and processing techniques. Now he's working on ways to reduce the use of mercury and its largely unregulated use in those remote places.

"If you were ever going to try and clean this up, I don't know how you would," he says, describing how rudimentary workshops have become mini toxic waste sites.

"These guys, they splash it around. The walls are contaminated, the floor, the miner. Essentially every square inch of the place is covered in mercury."

He says the workers compound the problem when they then return home, covered with the invisible poison which then contaminates their homes and families.

Health Risk
The biggest risk to human health occurs when the workers burn off the mercury in order to release the gold from the amalgam. This creates an invisible toxic gas but few take even basic precautions to protect themselves or others.

Nichols says he found one exhaust vent spewing toxins between a school and a restaurant in Portovelo, Ecuador.

Beads of mercury are squeezed out of an amalgam and onto the bare hands of a worker processing gold in Ecuador. (Brandon Nichols)

A recent conference at the University of British Columbia brought together experts from around the world battling to cut down on the use of mercury in mining.

Susan Keane, deputy director of health programs at the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington, D.C., says about 1,400 tonnes of mercury is used by miners each year. 

"Mercury use from small scale gold mining is the largest source of mercury pollution in the world."

Developing countries in South America, Asia and Africa are the biggest users.

Paleah Black Moher is a toxicologist with Simon Fraser University who's seen the problems first hand.

"I just did a study in Burkina Faso in February and found some of the highest exposures of elemental mercury ever recorded. So, it's pretty phenomenal."

Neurological time bomb
She says mercury concentrates in the human brain and over time creates neurological problems, especially if children are exposed. It can lower IQ and cause people to lose control of their extremities. It can also cause genetic defects which can be passed onto future generations.

The best known example of widespread contamination took place in Japan starting in the 1950s. The mercury was dumped into the water by industry and absorbed by fish and shellfish. More than 2,000 people who ate seafood from the area came down a severe form of mercury poisoning which came to be called Minamata disease.

Fixing the problem won't be easy....Please read full by By Greg Rasmussen (@cbcgreg), CBC News