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4/11/11

Peruvian gold and mercury poisoning

An excellent article is yours to be read just by clicking this link and going over. Penned by Barbara Fraser, it's all about how high levels of mercury in the atmosphere in and around Peruvian gold shops selling wares from informal/illegal mining may be a very serious health hazard for the wider population. Here's how the note starts, make sure you click through for the rest and thanks due to the eversuperduper Jacqueline Fowks for the headsup. Great journalism.


Townspeople, gold shopkeepers highly exposed to mercury in Peru

Experts have long known Peru’s miners are exposed to extremely high levels of mercury. But now new research shows that the toxic threat has spread to towns in the Amazon and Andes Mountains where gold is sold. Inside Puerto Maldonado's gold shops, shopkeepers heat clumps of ore, releasing mercury vapors that waft into the shop, and then outside, into streets crowded with townspeople. Researchers detected mercury levels at a gold shop so extreme a monitor couldn’t measure them. Then, high in the Andes, they measured unsafe levels in the air outside the shops.

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru -- On a busy, dusty street beside a huge open-air market, signs reading “oro” mark shops that trade in gold. The customers, mostly men in work clothes and rubber boots, have just arrived from the mining camps to sell their gold and wire money home.
Inside, shopkeepers heat the miners’ clumps of gold ore, releasing mercury vapors that waft into the shop, and then outside, into the streets crowded with townspeople.
Experts have long known Peru’s miners are exposed to extremely high levels of mercury. But now new research shows that the toxic threat has spread to towns in the Amazon and Andes Mountains where gold is sold.
In Puerto Maldonado, a jungle town in Madre de Dios, one of Latin America’s most productive gold mining areas, researcher Luis Fernández in 2009 detected mercury levels at a gold shop that were more than 20 times higher than an international worker safety standard. This February, his follow-up testing found mercury levels inside one shop that were so extreme his monitor couldn’t measure them.
Then, a week later, in a town high in the Andes, Fernández became truly alarmed when he measured mercury in the air outside the gold shops, and detected levels that exceeded the amounts considered safe.
“It seems clear that these workers are under extraordinary risk for acute mercury poisoning,” he said, adding that people outside the shops are highly exposed, too.
In the first study of its kind in Peru, Fernández and a team of researchers funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are measuring mercury pollution from gold shops in Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazonian lowlands, and La Rinconada, 15,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.
Their initial findings – coupled with new tests by Peru’s National Institute of Health that measured mercury in people’s urine – point to a public health risk in towns near informal mining camps, which have flourished with skyrocketing international gold prices.

CONTINUES HERE

UPDATE: IKN has the benefit of smart readers and one, who'll go by the name of 'Reader B' because he's not into fame and such, really knows his beans about all sorts of mining issues, including  mercury. Here's the mail he just sent in:



You know what is most upsetting to me about the mercury contamination from placer miners? It can be eliminated 98% by the use of a mercury retort, 500 year old technology. Any tinsmith/ mechanic/ plumber can make one for about $50, and it allows the miners to re-use the mercury again and again (so it would save them money) and save their health, the environment etc. See attached image, or Google your own.


Seriously, in 1556 Georgius Agricola wrote De Re Metallica, which instructs one in the art. One of the very earliest science text books.
I know a Yukon placer mining consultant who always takes one with him as a gift when he goes to visit placer mines in the third world. Biggest problem is the ultra-violence often found in illegal placer mining camps (see any episode of Deadwood). Often too scary to even approach these places.