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Will gold mining ever be safe?

(Photo: Brian Voon Yee Yap, GNU via Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo: Brian Voon Yee Yap, GNU via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s ‘bright and yellow, hard and cold’ and ‘heavy to get and light to hold’, Thomas Hood wrote in his poem ‘Gold’. When eternity rings with their diamond eyes wink at us we smile back, but there is a darker, dirtier story behind the sparkle. Neyonta investigates…

Gold is one of the world’s largest categories of consumer goods, with £86 billion being spent on gold jewellery in 2010. But the mining and extraction of gold is a destructive and toilsome process from the beginning. Two-thirds of newly mined gold comes from open-pit mining, through which the production of a single ounce requires 30 tons of mine waste.

Artisanal and small-scale workers make up a huge 90% of the labour force, but governments tend to give the large-scale industry preferential mining rights, and small-scale miners are pushed into operating informally and illegally, in demoralising working conditions with atrocious health and safety measures.

Devastating health consequences

Two of the most common ways to extract gold are cyanide heap leaching, and amalgamation. Cyanide heap leaching involves spraying crushed gold ore with cyanide before the resulting gold-cyanide solution can be separated through use of a mill.

Mine in South Africa
(Photo: by NJR ZA, CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cyanide is one of the world’s most deadly chemicals, a lethal substance for workers who experience regular contact. Even exposure to low levels can result in breathing difficulties, heart pains, vomiting, blood changes, headaches, and enlargement of the thyroid gland; whilst high levels harm the brain and heart, with the chance of coma and death.

Where gold is extracted by amalgamation, mercury is first brought into contact with gold, resulting in an alloy of gold and mercury known as amalgam. The mercury can then be removed by dissolving the amalgamin nitric acid or by evaporating it with heat, releasing vast amounts of mercury fumes. The quantities of mercury vapour released by mining activities has been proven to cause a wide range of damage, including damage to the kidneys, liver, brain, heart, lungs, colon and immune system, as well as cause behavioural and personality shifts.

A dangerous environment

As well as the risks associated with directly working with the poisons associated with extracting gold, there is a spectrum of diseases associated with being exposed to the gold-mining environment in general. These include oral and nasal cavity erosions and pulmonary diseases such as silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), which result from the dust and particles of mines; noise-induced hearing loss and whole body and hand-arm vibration syndrome, from use of machinery; and repetitive strain injuries, from heavy lifting and awkward posture.

The use of jackhammers or other vibrating machinery can also damage the nerves and affect blood circulation dangerously. Yet, for many miners affected by any number of these multitude of risks, access to even simple medical facilities is very limited or non-existent in the rural areas where many miners and ex-miners live, and, without diagnosis, they cannot receive compensation.

Men usually live in gold mining camps for several weeks at a time, before they rotate out to their homes for a two-week break. These long periods away from families have been known to lead to the rise of sex workers in the villages near the mining areas. HIV infections are then spread when miners infect their spouses and unborn children are affected. From these situations, HIV is spread further into the general population. High rates of HIV infection have been recorded in every gold mining country, and in South Africa shockingly some mines have reported a one in three miners infected.

Sad boy 44218
Often, children are forced to work in the mines, with long-term effects on their health

Women and children vulnerable

A report by the Human Rights Watch this earlier this year showed that, appallingly, thousands of the miners working in Tanzania’s small-scale mines are actually young children. With their juvenile strength they are made to dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, and work underground for physically torturous shifts of up to 24 hours. Children are in an absolutely powerless position to speak out about problems in their work. Their small and underdeveloped bodies are at risk of long-term damage from pit collapses and accidents with sharp and heavy tools, as well as from breathing in mine dust and mercury fumes.

Indigenous communities in developing countries are another very vulnerable group. Natives have a tough challenge in negotiating their land rights since in many countries, the law doesn’t recognize indigenous peoples as owners of the lands they live on. Therefore, many illegal gold miners target these areas. For example, in Peru, tens of thousands of illegal gold miners operate; consequently, native communities have levels of mercury roughly five times of that considered safe, according to a study by the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Project. Within indigenous groups, children and young women were found to be the most affected. Mercury is capable of causing profound damage to the brain of an unborn child.

The multiple benefits of “green gold”

There is definitely hope for a greater increase in the production and consumption of Fairtrade ‘green gold’. Many Fairtrade miners receive a minimum price of 95% of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) price for their gold, which is far higher than what miners would get from selling to local brokers. Under Fairtrade, miners can form groups or join unions to give themselves better bargaining power and therefore gain greater control over the supply chain. Fairtrade certification protects its workers through ensuring mandatory use of protective gear and health and safety training, as well as providing technology for safer and more efficient management of toxic chemicals in gold extraction. Fairtrade miners also receive a premium of £1,283 per kg of fine gold, which is used to invest in the local community. Fairtrade ‘green gold’ is a relatively new scheme that still has very far to go, and many consumers have yet to be aware of green gold, but the scheme does show promise.