Illegal gold mining operations in Peru have forced the Peruvian government to declare a state of emergency for the next two month. While the gold is valuable, the extracted process from surrounding areas has created a major health problem for local residents.
The key reason behind the health problems is the mercury used by unauthorized gold mining operations to separate gold form ore. The “process that exposes workers to mercury and also sends it into the environment, where it can build up in plants and animals.”
A National Geographic article describes how the mercury is used in the gold mining process.
“The miners cut down a small stand of trees, dig away the top layers of soil and blast away at what remains with high-pressured water. They transfer the resulting slurry into an oil drum and add mercury.
“The mercury binds to any gold in the mud, which the miners filter out with a pan. The nuggets are dried and heated, releasing even more mercury into the air as a vapour.”
Rural and indigenous communities rely on the land and the river as their main food sources, and as a result of the gold operations, are consuming major amounts of mercury. A report from Survival International found that nearly 80 percent of the Nahua tribe has been poisoned by mercury, attributing in part to gold operations, as well as a gas project that opened up tribal territory.
“Reuters reports that the mining operations in the Madres de Dios region of Peru dump 40 tons of mercury into local rivers every year and have destroyed almost a quarter million acres of rainforest. Satellite and aerial images have shown that illegal mines in Madres de Dios are both multiplying and expanding.”
Large mines are claiming thousands of hectares of forest every year, while government officials in Peru estimate that there are 50,000 to 70,000 miners along the Madre de Dios region; many of which are using mercury amalgamation to extract the gold.
Larger mining operations have started to use cyanide in their extraction processes, which recovers twice as much gold as the mercury amalgamation process. Unfortunately, most of the small-scale gold miners do not have the knowledge and skill for handling cyanide so they continue to use mercury, most of which is acquired on the black market. An alternative process of thiosulphate leaching is non-toxic, but is not effective for Peru’s particular mining.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that is known to cause severe mental and physical challenges. Exposure to methylmercury commonly occurs when people eating contaminated fish. Possible symptoms of methylmercury poisoning include loss of peripheral vision, lack of coordination, impairment of speech, hearing and walking, and muscle fatigue. Exposures to metallic mercury, which typically occurs through inhaling vapors causes emotional, neuromuscular and nerve responsiveness changes. Higher exposures can cause kidney and respiratory failure, and death.
Mercury analyzers are an important element used in laboratories today. There are a variety of applications where Mercury instruments are best suited. For more information on these analyzers and how they can help with your mercury analysis needs, please contact us.
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