The Toxic Toll of Mercury: Facts, Figures and the Future of “Dancing Cat Fever” Disease

Child gold miners in Indonesia

It has been over 50 years since the first sign of mass mercury poisoning emerged in Minamata, Japan.  Cats in the village started staggering and tilting, doing a strange “dancing cat fever.” Then people started acting the same way.

This week, representatives from over 130 countries are gathering in Minamata for the first global treaty to mitigate and prevent mercury pollution. This long overdue international agreement is a step in the right direction because mercury affects everyone, and requires a global approach to solve. Here are some facts and figures about toxic mercury that might surprise you.

FACTS:

  • Mercury travels – When released, mercury rises into the atmosphere and can travel long distances, contaminating oceans, lakes and soil worldwide. Mercury builds up in the bodies of certain fish as methylmercury – the reason why pregnant women are often told to avoid eating certain seafood.
  • Mercury lingers – It takes decades or even centuries for toxic mercury to cycle through the environment.  It transfers back and forth between soil and water and the atmosphere over the years.
  • Mercury is one of the top six toxic threats, and is considered one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern by WHO.
  • Mercury is especially devastating to children.  Its damage is irreversible. Even in small amounts, mercury may cause serious health problems.  According to the WHO, mercury threatens the development of infants in utero and disrupts the physiological and neurological development of children.  It attacks the central nervous system and several organs, and in higher doses, it can kill.
  • The leading source of mercury pollution is now recognized to be artisanal gold mining.  Around the world, small scale gold miners working informally or illegally to make a meagre living, mix and burn off toxic mercury to extract gold from tiny bits of ore.
  • Artisanal gold mining is responsible for over 30% of the world’s mercury emissions – about 1,400 tons of toxic mercury released per year (according to UNIDO)
  • At least a quarter of the world’s total gold supply comes from artisanal gold mining.
  • 4.5 million women and 600,000 children are among some 15 million artisanal gold miners being poisoned by direct contact with toxic mercury.
  • The largest source of mercury poisoning in fish worldwide is mercury used in artisanal gold mining.

FIGURES:

While mercury travels and affects people worldwide, the problem is most acute in certain hotspots.

  • 425: Number of sites worldwide contaminated by mercury*
  • 10.9 Million: Number of people at risk from these sites*

Pie chart: Percentage of total population at risk from mercury by pollution source industry

(*data from Blacksmith Institute’s Toxic Sites Identification Program, as of Oct 2013)

THE FUTURE:

  • Global treaty – The Minamata Convention will help work towards a reduction in worldwide mercury emissions. One provision requires countries to devise national action plans to help limit and control artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
  • Global alliance – The prospect of successful mercury reduction following Minamata may improve with the introduction of the GAHP (Global Alliance on Health and Pollution). Supported by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Commission and UNIDO, among other agencies, the GAHP is the first alliance of its kind to respond to the threat of toxic pollution on a worldwide scale. Any low or middle-income country can approach the GAHP for help to reduce mercury emissions (or solve other toxic pollution problems). The GAHP will share resources and expertise.  To seek GAHP help or learn more, contact the GAHP Secretariat at info@gahp.net.
  • Various initiatives are being introduced or explored around the world. They include programs to train miners in safe practices, programs to teach communities about mercury risks and behaviors to reduce exposure to mercury, programs to introduce technologies that reduce or eliminate mercury use and programs that help mining communities become more organized and efficient. These include:
  • Mercury recapture and reuselow-cost mercury retorts, which can recapture as much as 97% of the mercury released by miners, are being introduced and used in certain areas. Blacksmith has been able to reduce the amount of toxic mercury released into the atmosphere by an estimated 4,000 kg in 2010 from one mercury hotspot – Indonesia.
  • Direct gold smelting – in the Philippines, a group of miners have revived a century-old method of gold extraction using non-toxic borax instead of mercury. Blacksmith has been working on a trial of the borax method in Indonesia.  If successful, non-toxic borax could replace mercury in artisanal gold mining and potentially have a major impact on mercury emissions worldwide.

Related Links:

(VIDEO) Mercury:  The Burning Issue – Gold mining in Indonesia

(VIDEO) Mercury and Child Gold Miners in Indonesia

(VIDEO) History of Minamata (by professor Jack Caravanos, School of Public Health, CUNY)

Cleaning Mercury out of Indonesian Gold (Huffington Post)

How Mercury is Destroying Indonesia (BBC News)

The Surprising Source of Most Mercury Pollution (Live Science)

Will the New Global Treaty be Effective?

GAHP resource page on Chemicals and Toxins

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