Kenya: How use of mercury to refine gold negatively affects artisanal miners' health
"Despite high health risks, women reluctant to abandon trade in gold"
Mary Adhiambo’s frail frame and watery eyes are the first signs of her poor health. Her heavy breathing prevents her from engaging in lengthy talk, but the gold trade, her source of livelihood, is unforgiving. Haggling over price is the order of the day, and she has to keep up, although it leaves her breathless. And when not buying the ore for resale, she can be found burning gold amalgam, which contains mercury, a heavy metal used to separate gold from dirt, but notorious for impairing the nervous system. She does this on the veranda outside the cubicle she shares with her six children...
The effects of mercury poisoning are so dire that some women bear children impaired by heavy metal. Stillbirths are also common in the area. Some children are born healthy but are later affected by prolonged exposure to mercury fumes. The health complications witnessed in Nyatike support the findings of a recent study by IPEN, a global network of organisations working towards the elimination of toxic chemicals, which found that the use of mercury by pregnant women posed serious and substantial threats to their health and to babies in utero. The report said 71 per cent of women from three gold mining sites in Kenya had elevated mercury levels of 0.58 ppm (parts per million, the measure of mercury concentration) in hair samples, with 44 per cent exceeding the 1 ppm threshold.
The estimation of mercury levels through hair samples measures the level of methylmercury, the most toxic form of the element. Recent studies indicate that negative developmental effects might occur even at lower levels, and that the 0.58 threshold should be adopted as the measure below which impacts on the developing foetus are negligible.