Globally, up to 20 million miners work in artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations, which experts say are often unregulated and unsafe. PHOTO/UN/Veejay Villafranca
By SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
The UN environment agency UNEP is working on a two-pronged initiative aimed at reducing mercury use by nearly 370 tons in nine countries and eliminating the use of the mineral in beauty products.
UN environment agency in a report says the initiative now plans to scale up efforts in 15 other affected nations, making conditions safer for millions of small-scale miners.
“Over 100 million people rely on artisanal gold mining for their livelihoods, so it’s critical that we work with governments to equip miners with the knowledge and tools necessary to phase out mercury use,” said Ludovic Bernaudat, the programme manager of planetGOLD, an innovative effort led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP.
Funded by the UN-backed Global Environment Facility, the initiative’s goal is to slash mercury use by 512 tons. Launched in 2019, it also aims at improving more than 1.2 million hectares of land, mitigating some 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, and benefiting 370,000 people over the next six years, UNEP said.
Tackling 3,000-year-old practice
About 20 million miners in more than 80 countries work in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, including more than four million women and children.
Often unsafe and unregulated, these operations account for 20 per cent of the global gold supply, generating about $30 billion annually.
Responsible for 37 per cent of global mercury pollution, they emit 2,000 tons of the element every year.
Most workers do not use protective gear, which can cause serious health problems when handling mercury. PHOTO/UN/Duncan Moore
Used in mining for over 3,000 years, mercury does not degrade in the environment. It can accumulate in the atmosphere and pass through the food chain, which can cause irreversible brain damage and disrupt ecosystem health.
‘Mercury should be banned’
For many miners, gold digging is not a choice.
“Gold mining is a big part of our life,” said Demver Suzara, president of a mining association in the Philippines. “We don’t like using mercury, but we have no choice. It’s dangerous; mercury should be banned.”
While many governments are taking action to implement safer standards under the Minamata Convention, which aims as phasing out the use of mercury, enforcement is not always consistent.
In Kenya, where many of more than 250,000 small-scale gold miners are young adults that lack other job opportunities, barriers remain to access necessary equipment.
“I thought it would be simple, but I got it wrong,” says Emmanuel Nyaga, a 21-year-old small-scale miner in Kisumu. “The work is too hard. It would not be my job of choice, but I’ve been here one year.”
New initiative to eliminate use of mercury in beauty products
The latest developments come at a time when the UN and the Governments of Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka have united in a $14 million project to eliminate the use of mercury in skin lightening products – a serious public health issue.
The initiative will support a holistic approach to phase out the harmful chemical and promote the beauty of all skin tones.
Skin lightening products inhibit the body’s production of melanin, the pigment that plays a role in determining skin, hair and eye colour.
They have been used around the world for years, by both men and women – not only to lighten their complexions but to fade freckles, blemishes and age spots, and to treat acne.
However, many are often unaware that these cosmetics can contain mercury, which poses risks to human health and the environment.
They can cause skin rashes, discolouration and scarring, as well as nervous, digestive and immune system damage, but also anxiety and depression.
UNEP cited a 2018 test of 300 products from 22 countries which found roughly 10 per cent exceeded this limit, with many containing as much as 100 times the authorized amount.