It’s illegal and highly toxic to the workers and the environment – and it’s now estimated to be responsible for one-third of mercury pollution worldwide. The international treaty, named the Minamata Convention on Mercury, requires the phasing out of many mercury-containing products, including thermometers, by 2020, and also calls for an end to all mercury mining within 15 years. Small-scale mining operations in Asia, Africa and South America still use mercury to mine for gold.
Contrary to the popular image of “panning” for gold, during the California Gold Rush of the 1800s, gold miners used high-pressure water cannons to erode hillsides, then ran the sediment through sluice boxes to find the gold.
However, this wasn't the end of the damage caused by this destructive mining. Mercury was also widely used, because it helped the gold to become easily separated from the surrounding rocks and gravel.
Widespread Mercury Pollution Revealed in Peru
Duke University researchers conducted the first systematic study of mercury pollution related to gold mining in Peru's Madre de Dios region. Mining in the area has increased significantly since 2000, where high gold prices continue to attract laborers despite the mercury toxicity risks.
The Duke study revealed high levels of mercury concentrations in river sediment and fish, not only near the mining operations but also hundreds of kilometers downstream.
The researchers noted:
“This study demonstrates that communities located hundreds of …
Over the past decade, tens of thousands of people have moved to this remote area of the Amazon jungle in hopes of striking it rich — or at least making a bit more money than they were before. Not all of them work on floating barges. Some of the miners clear trees from riverbanks and sift the soil in search of gold. The destruction of the forests has been widely documented. This new study shows the extent of the mercury contamination. And the study clearly shows the link between mining and the elevated levels of mercury in the environment.
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