Gold wedding bands are a classic symbol of love and marital unity, and the beauty of the world's most treasured metal is incomparable. However, there is a growing concern about the environmental impact of gold mining you should consider while shopping around for your perfect pieces.
A common method of mining gold from the earth — artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) — uses mercury in the extraction process and puts the health of gold miners and their families at risk, and also damages the soil, air, and water.
Solving this issue is becoming increasingly important not only to protect the planet but to help miners in countries like Peru, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania sustain the income they need to survive. Luckily, some organizations are working hard to find a solution that will allow the ASGM communities to move away from mercury-based extraction methods altogether and find ways to mine gold without it.
The Dangers of Mining with Mercury
Gold miners use mercury because it's easy to obtain and binds easily to the free gold ions in ore, allowing them to separate the gold and mercury amalgam. When mercury is used to separate gold from ore, it forms a liquid amalgam with the gold, which isn't dangerous if you don't heat or touch it. However, when exposed to light and air (which often happens during the ASGM extraction process), the mercury vaporizes and can be inhaled.
When mercury seeps into waterways, it can contaminate fish supplies in the region, causing severe health problems for people who rely on catching their own food. This is a significant problem because mercury is a neurotoxin that affects the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain that helps you move properly. Mercury also harms the kidneys and other organs, and this neurological damage is irreversible. Someone who has been over-exposed to mercury might not show any symptoms for years, but the health effects can eventually be devastating. Slurred speech, difficulty walking, and tremors are classic signs of mercury poisoning.
The small-scale process of mining gold is also hazardous to the environment as a whole because it causes deforestation and soil erosion, so it's not surprising that environmentalists and conservationists are calling for an end to mercury use in gold mining. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, which the United States ratified in 2013, recognizes the dangers of ASGM and calls on nations to help miners find alternative methods to extract gold from the soil.
What Can Be Done to Stop Mercury Mining?
Protecting both the earth and the miners' health is crucial, but putting an end to mercury use for gold extraction isn't as straightforward as telling the miners to stop.
A lack of access to education, land titles, and general resources impedes the workers from considering new methods. They're also held back by few technological options and a lack of mercury-free processing equipment, having no reasonable way to acquire new tools in their remote villages. COVID-19 restrictions also have an impact, as workers are sometimes prevented from traveling to the mines and must work swiftly when they have the chance.
The good news is that some groups have developed programs to help miners modify the extraction process in ways that will benefit their health and, hopefully, their incomes too. For example, in the small West African nation of Burkina Faso, a collaborative effort by community groups and governmental agencies is piloting a mercury-free mining process at four sites that collectively employ thousands of miners. The pilot offers financial resources, training, and temporary housing for participants as they learn from geologists how to use new options for gold extraction.
Alternatives to Mercury in Mining
There are many ways to extract gold from ore without using mercury. For example, one method uses a sodium carbonate solution which separates gold from other minerals due to its high solubility. It's a chemical reaction that does not require heat and can therefore be used in small-scale extractions without the risk of mercury vaporization. It's relatively safe as long as you don't touch or inhale the amalgamated gold dust left behind after processing.
Another new technique that produces gold dust by shaking rock containing quartz with water is reducing the presence of mercury used in artisanal small-scale gold mining projects around South America (where a large portion of the world's gold is sourced). The Fairtrade Foundation has pioneered the technique in Colombia and is working with small-scale miners to reduce mercury use and improve safety conditions for workers.
Other alternatives to mercury include using boiling water, shaker tables, or centrifuges to separate gold from other materials. With a bit of training and the right equipment, artisanal miners can use these methods safely and effectively to reduce the amount of mercury used in their operations.
While alternatives are sometimes slower to produce gold than is ideal for miners who need to maintain a steady income, the future is likely to bring more help from the jewelry industry. In Peru, a grant from the Gemological Institute of America recently provided funding for an evaluation of alternative processes in the hope of improving options for miners around the world.
You can minimize the environmental impact of gold mining by choosing jewelry made from mercury-free gold. Look through the product description for terms like "eco-gold" or "fairtrade gold." And to learn more about mercury in mining, check out this two-part video series, Mercury in Mining: Insiders, Outsiders, and Innovators, which was put together by Mercury Free Mining, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating mercury's prevalence in ASGM. Revolution Jewelry is a proud partner of Mercury Free Mining, so let us know if you have questions about how you can help.