By Max Worthington
Mercury pollution is a global threat affecting millions of people. In Australia the threat comes mainly in the form of toxic marine life, poisoned by increasing levels of mercury in our seas and rivers. In developing nations however, the threat is more direct: In the practice of artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), mercury is used intentionally to extract gold from its ore. Despite its name, this is an enterprise that spans over 70 countries, produces some 20% of the world’s gold supply and involves the work of 15 million miners, many of them children. In this practice, mercury is mixed in with crushed rocks thought to contain gold to form a gold-mercury amalgam that is then isolated and melted, often by hand, and often without precaution to the hazards of handling the neurotoxic metal. The open vaporisation of mercury and discarding of contaminated waste material exposes humans and livestock for many miles around, risking neurological damage to those who are exposed, as well as impaired foetal development in unborn children.
With the ratification of the Minamata Convention on mercury this year – an initiative signed by 128 counties that seeks to phase out the use of mercury and ultimately curtail its threat to human health – it is imperative that new methods be developed and implemented to clean up the mercury already present in the environment, as well as aid those whose livelihoods rely upon it. The Chalker lab has recently developed a new material, capable of capturing several types of mercury from air, water and soil. In an effort to aid in this endeavour we are working with several industry partners and environmental agencies, including the UNEP and the Department of the Environment and Energy, to develop a device that will be both inexpensive to produce and simple to operate: key tenants any technology will need to abide by to see extensive uptake in rural ASGM communities in order to tackle mercury pollution on a global scale.
ASGM: Eliminating the worst practices