2389 word count (without reference) Challenges in reducing use of mercury in artisanal gold mining in developing countries The mining industry is a long-established human activity, whose revenue has captivated both large companies and individuals, throughout history.
Actually, artisanal and small-scale mining supplies approximately 12-15 of gold worldwide (1). As this activity is carried out mainly informally and lacks environmentally responsible techniques, there is significant risk of contamination not only of the biodiversity surrounding these locations, but also irreversible toxic effects on peoples health. In this essay, I will explain the use of mercury in the artisanal mining industry, health effect and the socio-economic and cultural barriers that contribute to this activity persisting today. Regulatory policies in developing countries seem ineffective in controlling artisanal and small-scale mining. Despite the fact that there is a vast quantity of legislative codes enforcing proper environmental practices, over 70 countries worldwide are currently working under vulnerable conditions. Most of these activities are undertaken in developing countries, for instance in South America, Africa, and South East Asia, where miners use mercury as the main substance to process minerals (2). Thereafter, there is a significant urge to develop plans to reduce, and where feasible, eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (2c).
Uses of mercury in the small-scale mining industry Mercury is one of the preferable substances used to process precious minerals. Although there are alternative techniques to extract gold from hard rocks, the informal mining industry uses mercury indiscriminately since the chemical is affordable, relatively accessible to obtain in the market and most importantly the only metal able to keep liquid under room temperature, under plain structural conditions. Whereas since twentieth century large-scale mining had implemented more mechanized techniques, artisanal labourers are processing minerals manually (3). Gold processing starts with rock grinding, where mercury plays an important role capturing gold particles and forming amalgams. Then, under high temperatures mercury is subjected to burn treatment to separate these amalgams from gold generating a huge amount of steam, which is released to open spaces or even miners own residences.
Finally, remains of mercury are thrown into washing areas such as lakes and rivers. Under these circumstances, it is noticeable that use of mercury contributes to environmental contamination, putting at risk soil, lakes and waterways. What it is more, this activity not only immediately exposes artisanal workers to toxic substances, but also leads to potential environmental hazards (10), indirectly exposing other people through marine products consumption, which are infected by mercury (11). Toxicokinetic principles describe this process.
The dose and frequency of exposure determine health damage. The mechanism of toxicity is under impact upon levels of mercury concentration on the human body. Given this point, the degree of exposition of any mercury component will break permissible limits in the body.
Artisanal miners are expose to a direct absorption, whose routes of entry to the body are through inhalation of mercury vapours and skin contact (19). There are notable differences in the type of mercury exposure to health. On the one hand, in the mining activity, workers are exposed to inorganic mercury vapour, which penetrates the membranes of the body and it is easily absorbed. On the other hand, daily fish consumption would determine effects rates on the body. It should be mentioned that high emission of mercury from mining activities leads to an increase in organic mercury ratios in the environment due to the transformation into methyl-mercury (21). Both expositions have adverse effects on the environment and people health. Effects of mercury exposure There are no consistent data on the ranges of occupational exposure to mercury causing health effects.
This is to say that while for some investigators value the clinical effect after years of exposition, to others is enough low levels of mercury to point out health damage. A large vast of reviews confirm artisanal workers in small-scale mining worldwide are found with acute and long-term health effects (3). Specifically, studies among artisanal miners in developing countries corroborate high mercury content through biomarkers such as hair, blood and urine. This is to say that as high marks are found, more at risk would be the employee of developing a chronic disease. On the other hand, regardless amount of Hg absorbed in body, authors conclude that any level resulting from Hg exposure is toxic (25). This variation can be explained by specific conditions which take place in every in developing country factors such as technical operation, use of protective equipment, among other factors).
Besides biomarkers to detect levels of mercury, described before, years of exposure is apparently a stronger indicator to identify signs resulting from mercury contamination. Hence, researches support a causal association between prolonged exposure and chronic neurological symptoms (5) as neurological signs and symptoms develop slowly and depend on the period of mercury exposure. Tolerable exposure limits are critical values to compare amount of toxic exposure, among low-scale mining industries. Nonetheless, environmental agencies refers that people involved in occupational activities, who are exposed to greater parameters than allowed, result in harmful nervous system effects, even after suspension of work with mercury, many of their symptoms in most cases are irreversible (9). World Health Organization sustain there are neurological symptoms (9), main damages are believed to affect human cognition in terms of language retardation, cognitive development delayed coordination problems (5), this typical symptoms include visual and hearing decay. Hence, whether amount exceed allowed limits, mercury brain accumulation may be a contributing factor to the development of neurodegenerative diseases (24).
Similarly in clinical studies in non-occupational spaces declare chronic effects after biological inhalation even at low levels of mercury. It induces to a generalized affection of particularly the nervous, renal systems, chronic kidney disorders, lung inflammation, whose level of damage depends on the duration and amount of the exposure (23). Similarly, residents of fishing communities located near gold mines are exposed to higher levels of mercury than those away from gold mines (25). On the basis that artisanal mining activity take place in communities, where conditions are not inspected for health and safety standards. Due to this activity is undertake often informally, in open spaces not suitable for working metal, many investigations report neurological and behavioral disorders also in children (7), this mercury exposure can occur during periods of pregnancy (9) if blood levels of pregnant mother are higher than allowed parameters in population who live surrounding mining activities. Likewise, It is noteworthy that in the analysis of biological exposure, mothers put at risk their children as a result of high consumption of fish in the prenatal stage, children are more susceptible to developing neurocognitive delay (6) (7), even at low dose of exposure to methylmercury. Thus, populations with high rate of fish consumption would have a greater predisposition to store more mercury content and develop dysfunctional body activity. Barriers to good practice In recent decades, the price of gold, although it has been fluctuating, remains valuable.
Gold demand has been constant worldwide. The World Bank annuals report mention rising periods of gold prices (26a), this situation creates favorable production expectations in the mining industry. It becomes clear that gold is not only an important mean of economic support for vulnerable rural communities, but also provides employment opportunities, regardless sociopolitical instabilities (3). Furthermore, taking into account that, working-class people with low socioeconomic level generally carry out independent business, their scarce knowledge of risk management exposes them to toxic elements. Consequently, it seems there is an underlying need to obtain immediate economic income with a minimum investment, which outweigh perception of risk in this occupational activity.
Socio-economic and politic factors explain why people continue working in small-scale mining. Economic limitations and poor alternatives to work influence miners to choose artisan activity, as a way of living (4b). Whilst studies in mining areas report that people in vulnerable areas face low incomes and job insecurity, entire communities get direct employment by engaging in mining activities at the local level (15b). In this sense, the World Bank specifies that both men and women benefit economically. As a result, the work of artisanal mining contributes to communities generating economic autonomy to face poverty and unemployment (26b). Consistent with low socioeconomic levels, lack of a supportive environment from the government is a limitation to formalize the artisanal mining activity.
It is widely known, capital is necessary to invest in better working conditions and to legalize the business. In addition to the considerable cost and lengthy administrative paperwork, it seems that legislative frameworks are pushing miners even further away from labour formalization (11), more than a benefit represents a risk that miners hesitate to expose (16). Proposals to reduce mercury use To reduce mercury exposure, global public policies established many regulations. The most recent is Minamata Convention on Mercury, whose target is to limit mercury trading, in particular in developing countries. In 2017, more than 80 countries have signed in agreement of engaging with actions to regulate the use of mercury in occupational environments. In spite of agreements between nations, it is vital to remember that in absence of practical techniques, training and regulation enforcement, according to particular situations of each country involved, artisanal miners will not change their techniques of contamination (13). Among alternative proposals to reduce the use of mercury, one of those is by using imported technology.
For one side, technological alternatives focus on promoting high intensity of excavation and mineral processing with less environmental impact. On the other side, systems not only are notoriously expensive and complex models from other countries but also inefficient to respond to realities of remotes communities (12). Consistent with this, studies refer small-scale operations face limitations to adapt large-scale methodology. This is to say that, artisanal miners consider some factors before changing into a mechanized operation (a) increased or comparable simplicity, (b) quick recovery of the investment, (c) demonstrated economic benefit, d) context, and availability of materials, operating cost, and access to technical support, these aspects have an impact on miners to accept a new technique (14). Consider all of the above mentioned, mining operators expect to start their own business with relatively low investment and short-term results. There is consensus among researchers about the impact of policies that have proven ineffective in addressing the use of mercury in developing countries. It is a challenge to ensure that miners adopt cleaner procedures on the basis that their rudimentary activities are compatible with their financial possibilities and knowledge. While miners adapt responsible gold processing (11), a multidimensional approach led by local governments to implement sustainable mercury reduction is crucial (13) (15a).
This includes pragmatic educational methodologies to involve communities (8) for implementing alternatives according to their specific possibilities. Education is the key button of the intervention to motivate changes towards less polluting procedures. Recent researches based on social perspective propos educational interventions to increase awareness about mercury reduction and adverse health and environment effects (21). Likewise, investigators propose training for the use of cleaner procedures, other studies point out importance of more technical training (11) as mentoring program to instruct miners. Besides that, preventive measures such as enforcement of protective equipment (3) to ensure safer mineral processing. Otherwise, index of health risks will be persistently high in active mining communities. To conclude, reducing the use of mercury in the small-scale mining industry remains a challenge for governments.
The work force of rural communities depends on mining as an important source of income lack of employment and educational opportunities contributes to the persistence of this dangerous practice, in underdeveloped countries. Furthermore, it is clear that the rudimentary methodology in the extraction of gold requires intervention and technical development according to the economic and cultural conditions of miners (2c). It is noteworthy that policies and governance approaches are inconsistent and even insensitive to the reality of rural communities. This issue represents a pending challenge because it generates a growing concern at environmental and health level in developing countries. References 1.
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