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Making a real, positive change in the ASGM sector

Minerals and metals are essential for modern living and mining is still the primary method of their extraction. However, the main constraints to sustainability in the mining sector appear to arise from the increasing pollution generated by the extraction process. This holds true for large-scale operations as well as small-scale or artisanal ventures. While there is a variation in the sustainability of various extraction methods, extractive industries generally have operations associated with a range of socio-environmental impacts that affect local communities. Mining is important to revenue and employment in many developing countries, but the need to have sustainable and clean mining operations cannot be understated.

For the gold mining industry, positive socio-environmental and financial impact can be made by reducing mercury contamination from the artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector. The ASGM sector, according t​o a ​paper published in the ​International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,​ is “the ​largest source of mercury contamination globally and is ​responsible for 37% of anthropogenic mercury emissions”. 1

According to ​health experts​, mercury is an element so toxic that there is “no known safe level of exposure”. Such is the severity of this toxicity that more than a hundred nations have joined a global campaign to reduce the international trade in mercury. There has been a great amount of public health research on ASGM communities’ exposure to mercury and other heavy metals, and we must act quickly to stem mercury usage in mines, safeguard livelihoods, and prevent mercury-related health complications in mining communities that may carry a burdensome financial cost. 2 3 4 5

Mercury contamination from mining activities pollute the environment in many ways, and this toxic substance bioaccumulates in living organisms. In an ​article published in the journal ​NeuroToxicology​, a study of two groups of 22 adult male subjects who were habitual consumers of tuna found that with elevated levels of mercury in urine and an above-average organic component of mercury in blood levels, there was a corresponding decrease of neurobehavioural performance when the subjects were tested on colour-word reaction time, digit-symbol reaction time, and finger tapping speed. 6 This assessment demonstrated the destructive and debilitating nature of mercury contamination on the environment and its impact on the food chain.

Besides the medic​al implications that come from inhaling mercury vapour or ingesting methylmercury through the consumption of mercury-contaminated food, there is a significant social and financial cost as well. In a 2013 ​paper published in the journal ​Environmental Health​, researchers conducted a study on preventable developmental neurotoxicity to gauge the economic benefits of methylmercury exposure control in Europe. The total annual benefits of exposure prevention within the European Union was estimated at more than 600,000 IQ points per year, and when translated into economic terms, yielded between €8 billion to €9 billion per year based on the calculated life-time income gains from a higher IQ level. 7 ​This effectively means that without significant mercury remediation efforts, IQ reduction from prenatal exposure to methylmercury will increase social costs through the loss of worker productivity, resulting in a lower earning potential per person. 8 With a measurable lifetime earning loss per person, this creates a negative economic impact for society.

The recent increase in gold prices show that there is a strong demand for the precious metal, which is likely to trigger increased mining activity in ASGM outfits. Mining needs to be conducted in a safe and sustainable manner, and procedures need to be put in place to ensure that there is no negative impact on miners, local communities, and the environment. Maximise the developmental benefits of gold mining while improving the environmental and social sustainability of the mining sector, as was first addressed in the ​Johannesburg Plan of Implementation where the following three priority areas were identified:

 

  1. Support efforts to address the environmental, economic, health and social impacts and benefits of mining, minerals and metals throughout their life cycle, including workers’ health and safety, and use a range of partnerships, furthering existing activities at the national and international levels among interested governments, intergovernmental organisations, mining companies, workers and other stakeholders to promote transparency and accountability for sustainable mining and minerals development;
  2. Enhance the participation of stakeholders, including local and indigenous communities and women, to play an active role in minerals, metals and mining development throughout the life cycles of mining operations, including after closure for rehabilitation purposes, in accordance with national regulations and taking into account significant transboundary impacts;
  3. Foster sustainable mining practices through the provision of financial, technical and capacity-building support to developing countries and countries with economies in transition for the mining and processing of minerals, including small scale mining, and, where possible and appropriate, improve value-added processing, upgrade scientific and technological information and reclaim and rehabilitate degraded sites.

 

Clean Mining offers a scalable, non-toxic solution that does not harm the environment, and this has won Mining Magazine’s 2019 award in the mineral processing technology category. As the economic case for mining improves when ​gold prices rise​, mining activities must be done cleanly, sustainably, ethically, and above all, be cyanide and mercury-free. Together, we can do good together when mining companies adopt the usage of our gold recovery reagent and dewatering process at their mining operations. Create positive socio-environmental, economic, and health impacts by using our turnkey solutions, because this will safeguard the livelihoods of mining communities and allow for mining to be carried out safely.

 

Clean Mining is part of the Clean Earth Technologies group.

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[1] Kyrre Sundseth et al., “Global Sources and Pathways of Mercury in the Context of Human Health,” ​International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health​ 14, no. 1 (2017): p. 105, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14010105​.

[2] Richard K. Appoh et al., “Assessment of Mercury Pollution in Rivers and Streams around Artisanal Gold Mining Areas of the Birim North District of Ghana,” ​Journal of Environmental Protection 02, no. 09 (2011): pp. 1227-1239, https://doi.org/10.4236/jep.2011.29141​.

[3] Stephan Bose-O’Reilly et al., “Mercury as a Serious Health Hazard for Children in Gold Mining Areas,” ​Environmental Research​ 107, no. 1 (2008): pp. 89-97, ​https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2008.01.009.​

[4] A. A. Adimado and D. A. Baah, “Mercury in Human Blood, Urine, Hair, Nail, and Fish from the Ankobra and Tano River Basins in Southwestern Ghana,” ​Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 68, no. 3 (January 2002): pp. 339-346, https://doi.org/10.1007/s001280259​.

[5] Yasaswi Paruchuri et al., “Occupational and Environmental Mercury Exposure among Small-Scale Gold Miners in the Talensi–Nabdam District of Ghana’s Upper East Region,” ​Science of The Total Environment 408, no. 24 (2010): pp. 6079-6085, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2010.08.022​.

[6] Plinio Carta et al., “Sub-Clinical Neurobehavioral Abnormalities Associated with Low Level of Mercury Exposure through Fish Consumption,” ​NeuroToxicology​ 24, no. 4-5 (2003): pp. 617-623, ​https://doi.org/10.1016/s0161-813x(03)00080-9​.

[7] Martine Bellanger et al., “Economic Benefits of Methylmercury Exposure Control in Europe: Monetary Value of Neurotoxicity Prevention,” ​Environmental Health​ 12, no. 1 (July 2013), https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-069x-12-3​.

[8] See, Lederman, Sally Ann, Robert L. Jones, Kathleen L. Caldwell, Virginia Rauh, Stephen E. Sheets, Deliang Tang, Sheila Viswanathan et al. “Relation between cord blood mercury levels and early child development in a World Trade Center cohort.” Environmental health perspectives 116, no. 8 (2008): 1085-1091., for more on the calculations for MeHg-associated deficits, which are close to or below the cut-off level of 0.58 μg/g hair. A 1 μg/L increase of the cord-blood mercury concentration is associated with an average adverse impact on IQ of 0.093 times the standard deviation (which is standardised to be 15), each increase in the maternal hair-mercury by 1 μg/g is associated with an average loss of 0.465 IQ points. For a deeper analysis on this, see, Trasande, Leonardo, Clyde Schechter, Karla A. Haynes, and Philip J. Landrigan. “Applying cost analyses to drive policy that protects children: mercury as a case study.” ​Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1076, no. 1 (2006): 911-923.

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