Gold and mercury poisoning
The use of mercury in gold mining and gilding (covering something in a thin layer of gold) has a long history of poisoning in the Western world and a continuing legacy of death and disease in developing countries as the global demand for gold increases.
What was commonly known as ‘gilder’s palsy’ occurs due to inhalation or unintentional ingestion when the toxic metal comes in contact with a worker’s hands and later mixes with their food or water.
See the following historical example of mercury poisoning in Russia, from the Montreal Gazette:
About 100 kilos of gold were mixed with mercury for application to the copper sheets that were used to create the golden dome that adorns the cathedral of St. Isaac in St. Petersburg. The dome, unfortunately, is also a symbol of mercury poisoning. Some 60 workers died as a result of mercury inhalation!
Crude methods of gold extraction can also expose miners to very high levels of lead toxicity. Children gold miners in Nigeria suffer the twin effects of mercury and lead poisoning.
High levels of exposure can affect the development of their brain, kidneys, and digestive system, and cause developmental delays, according to medical experts. Artisanal miners are exposed to mercury when they mix mercury and ore with their bare hands, and worse, burn the amalgam to separate out the gold, inhaling the vapor.
– Human Rights Watch
Now strictly regulated in developed countries, mercury is still widely used in poor nations, especially where unregulated gold mining is taking place.
The small-scale gold rush is affecting African nations worst of all, as this article in The Ecologist explains.
And mercury poisoning isn’t simply a human health issue. It is hazardous to entire ecosystems, such as the Peruvian rainforest, a site of dangerous and illegal gold mining.
The government of the Philippines is trying to get gold miners to switch from mercury to borax in an effort to reduce mercury poisoning in the Southeast Asian country.
For more information on the effects of gold mining and mercury in poor countries, as well as efforts to curb it, see this press release in allafrica.com.