Artisanal Gold Mining

Artisanal Gold Mining

Fact Sheet: Artisanal Gold Mining – Ranked #7


Estimated DALYs: 1,021,000


What is the industry?


Artisanal gold mining refers to small-scale informal mining activities that mine ores containing gold and process them to recover the gold. While the sites are small-scale, 20 percent of the world’s gold is produced in artisanal gold mines and it releases more mercury than any other sector worldwide. The technologies and methods are very low-tech and the gold is usually processed in rudimentary structures with no pollution controls, or it is even done in households and small shops. The mined ore is crushed to release the gold particles, reduced, and then mercury is added to bind to the gold.


What are the pollutants?


The top pollutant by population at risk is mercury, mercury is used in gold mining because it binds to the gold particles and then evaporates when heated, leaving the gold behind. Lead is also found in polluted artisanal gold mining sites, when ore is crushed it often contains lead, which is left behind and dispersed into the environment.


What are the exposure pathways?


The mercury vapor is inhaled directly by the workers and is absorbed into the surrounding surfaces, where it is continuously re-emitted into the air over time. The mercury vapor is also released into the environment and settles on plants, soil and waterways nearby. Gold processing is often undertaken in residential areas and done out in the open around children and other family members, directly exposing the community to pollutants. Those not directly exposed are at risk of ingesting mercury that has been absorbed by waterways, soil or animals that are then eaten as food.


What are the health risks?


When lead is inhaled or ingested it is stored in the body and accumulates over time. Lead is designated as a possible human carcinogen, and can cause neurological, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems. Neurological problems include mild mental retardation, decreased IQ, shortened attention spans, loss of executive function, increased dyslexia and diminished productivity and disproportionally affect children. Mercury causes renal toxicity, damage to the immune system and neurological damage. Volatile organic compounds include a wide range of chemicals that can cause kidney and liver damage, throat irritation, headaches, and damage to the respiratory system.

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