The hidden costs of gold: mercury poisoning blights mining communities
The high price of gold has sent thousands into the informal mining sector and exposed workers and the environment to the devastating effects of mercury poisoning. Trembling and irritable, at times psychotic, the hat makers of 19thâ€¨ century England were know to be a bit odd at best. Separating fur from animal skins, they washed them in a compoundâ€¨ called mercury nitrate a process that released vapors into steaming â€¨air already choked with fumes.
In the poorly ventilated workshops of the industrial revolution, â€¨prolonged exposure led to mercury poisoning and eventually the phrase as mad as a hatter.â€¨â€¨ The types of conditions that put industrial workers at risk of mercury â€¨poisoning have long been banned in the west with the EU going as farâ€¨ as forbidding the sale of mercury thermometers to the public in 2008.â€¨â€¨
But in Africa, hazardous conditions still exist. Small scale miners use mercury to extract gold across the continent with the numbers rising as the precious metal has tripled in price â€¨from $513 an ounce in 2005 to $1700 this year.