/Mercury: A threat to the environment, public health

Mercury: A threat to the environment, public health

By Ernest K Mando, Masvingo

While there is an extensive influx and proliferation of artisanal or small scale gold miners who are resorting to the use of mercury in their gold processing operations, there are paltry efforts being made to protect the environment and safeguard human health against this harmful substance.

The excessive and persistent use of mercury by small scale miners in Zimbabwe has become worrisome to environmental scientists, researchers and the entire medical sphere, yet the government’s levity efforts have not fully bracketed this sector in its institutional and policy frameworks.

 Artisanal miners often lack the capacity, funds, and incentives to adopt good mining practices, yet the ratifications of their mining activities to community health is neither adequately observed nor addressed. 

The use of mercury in small scale gold mining operations has some serious implications to the health of miners,  and the surrounding communities. 

While mercury is an important raw material in gold processing in Zimbabwe, one may query on how it is handled thereafter, in the face of rampant illegal mining activities. 

One may also interrogate if the miners take precaution and apply health and safety measures, for instance, the use of proper protective equipment (PPE).

 Small scale miners often use mercury to recover minute pieces of gold from the soil and sediments. 

Mercury and gold settle and combine together to form an amalgam, where gold is later extracted by vaporizing the mercury. 

Although mercury is a naturally occurring element, it is highly toxic to humans, animals and the environment when not handled properly. 

Prolonged and high exposure to mercury inhalation and ingestion by living organisms damages the nervous, digestive and immune systems. 

Mercury can also pollute or contaminate water bodies, subsequently killing aquatic life such as fish. 

Exposure to mercury by pregnant women risk them giving birth to babies with congenital diseases.

It is against this background that researchers and environmentalists are concerned about mercury use in the ASGM sector, and are calling for a multi-sectorial approach that involves the government, civil society organisations, miners and communities to curb the problem. 

The government should urgently put in place health, safety and environmental (HSE) policies,  particularly for small scale mining sector that help in  addressing this health and environmental headache, at the same time promoting economic development.

Ernest is an environmentalist and OHS specialist who strongly advocates for environmental sustainability. He is a prominent researcher, educator and consultant in the foresaid areas and education. He is a PhD candidate in Environmental Management. 
For all your OHS, environmental and education matters/enquiries, contact him on +263-772244193, 735404802 or email- ernestkmando@gmail.com

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