The amalgam is burned on an open fire to release the gold, which vaporizes the mercury and releases it into the environment.

Our planet is currently experiencing the largest gold rush in its history. With prices now dancing around $1200/oz, there are an estimated 15-16 million Artisanal and Small scale gold Miners working in 55 developing countries around the world. ASM activities account for 15 - 25% of all gold produced annually.




When droughts hit, wars destroy and economies collapse, mining is the only option for millions to survive. About 30% of subsistence gold miners are women (60%) in Africa, and it’s estimated that nearly 2 million children work in mines around the world.



Most of the gold mined today aren’t nuggets, it’s dust, extremely time consuming, laborious and ineffective to pan. To recover these small flakes from ore, the small miners’ favored method is mercury amalgamation.



Here’s how mercury amalgamation works:  Say you have a bowl of ore containing gold dust.  If you add mercury (a liquid metal) and tumble it with the ore, the mercury will bond to and absorb the larger particles of gold, which creates an amalgam.



To recover the gold from the amalgam, it’s burned, which most miners do out in the open (or on their kitchen stoves), which vaporizes the mercury and releases it to the atmosphere. Apart from breathing the fumes, as mercury re-enters the environment it threatens the health of the miners, communities, wildlife and all who consume poisoned proteins. Finally, the spent ore is dumped on site or into a water body.



Mercury releases from small scale gold mining are now the second leading cause of mercury pollution on the planet, second only to the burning of fossil fuels. An estimated one third of annual mercury consumption is attributed to small scale gold mining, with an estimated 1000 tons of mercury being released into the environment annually.



Mercury, and its more lethal derivative methyl mercury (mercury that has bio accumulated in the environment and proteins that all citizens of a country consume), attacks the central nervous system and organs in humans and particularly threatens fetal development.



In Suriname (north of Brazil) in South America, a 2003 study of 54 mothers and their newborns, taken from a cross section of ethnic, urban and rural populations showed that 36% of the mothers and 95% of their babies had elevated levels of mercury in their bloodstream.  Suriname is the size of the US state of Georgia, with a population of less than half a million, but it’s estimated that their gold mining activities release 10 -20 tons of mercury annually.



Children exposed to mercury before birth may exhibit problems with mental development and coordination, including how they think, learn and problem-solve later in life.  These neurological symptoms may appear similar to cerebral palsy or autism. Developmental and neurological damage can be irreversible for fetuses and young children.



References: Marcello Veiga of UNIDO’s Global Mercury Project.  Rickford Vieira, WWF-Guianas.  Mohan, et al, Lands Hospital, Paramaribo, Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands. Environmental Defense’s Oceans Alive Campaign.


Photos by Kristina Shafer

Small ball of amalgam (gold absorbed by mercury) after excess mercury has been squeezed through a cloth.

Gold emerging after mercury is burned off.

Cooling the gold sponge in water.  Now it’s ready to trade for goods at the local shop.  Some percentage of mercury is still present in the gold, which will eventually be burned off by a dealer in the city, creating another mercury hotspot.

mercury in artisanal and small scale gold mining

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