Anthropogenic mercury pollution occurs when artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) operators use toxic mercury to extract gold. This is a huge concern because no safe level of exposure to mercury exists. Immediate, corrective, and enforceable actions by legislative and judicial organs around the world are needed, and the illicit trade of mercury needs to be fundamentally de-hubbed from global gold production.
The ASGM sector provides gainful employment to around 15 million miners globally. 1 It produces about 20% of the world’s gold and rakes in an estimated revenue of US$25 billion annually, and a further 80 to 100 million people are believed to benefit indirectly from ASGM-linked operations. 2
Miners in ASGM operations work under hazardous conditions and are often exposed to toxic chemicals. In the process of extracting gold, mercury is mixed with ore to form a mercury-gold amalgam which is then heated to vaporise the mercury. 3 This is the predominant gold extraction method for artisanal miners as it is cheap and easy to conduct.
ASGM outfits are responsible for approximately 37% of global mercury emissions. There are tremendous socio-environmental implications attributed to mercury-dependent ASGM operations. Biodiverse ecosystems are harmed when mercury enters the food chain. 4 It also contaminates sources of drinking water, and mercury exposure has been linked to cases of developmental deficits.
Miners are particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxic exposure as they may come into direct contact with the fumes of vaporised mercury. If mercury is inhaled or ingested, scientific studies indicate that birth defects, kidney dysfunction, neurological defects and even death may occur. 5
Global action to address this issue has come in the form of the Minamata Convention on Mercury. 128 countries have committed to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury, and they have imposed controls and reductions that relate to the entire life cycle of mercury. These involve processes and industries where mercury is used, released, or emitted. Most importantly, the treaty also addressed the direct production of mercury, its export and import, safe storage, and disposal as waste. This component outlined how a myriad of products that contain mercury, and the mercury production process itself, must be phased out.
While countries are committing themselves to prohibit the manufacture, import, and export of mercury, demand for mercury in ASGM operations have fuelled a black market for this shimmery liquid. Investigative research by The New York Times has uncovered illicit backyard manufacturers of mercury, and the resultant trade of it allows the toxic metal to transit global hubs such as Singapore and Dubai before reaching ASGM operations in the region. 6 The enforcement of legislation to curb such practices must be upheld globally as it remains a challenge to tackle the illicit trade and production of mercury.
To combat these issues and reduce mercury pollution, the Global Opportunities for Long-term Development of the Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining Sector (GOLD), developed by the Global Environmental Facility and supported by various United Nations programmes, will contribute US$45.2 million and work with governments, international financing institutions, and private companies to incentivise efforts that eliminate mercury from gold mining practices. Through the programme, mining operators will be encouraged to connect to alternative supply chains and develop mercury-free partnerships.
Clean Earth Technologies has also developed a non-toxic and sustainable gold recovery reagent that will enable ASGM operators to mine cleanly and sustainably. While it is also scalable to suit larger operations, ASGM operations will benefit greatly from an environmentally-friendly alternative to mercury.
Ultimately, the ASGM sector needs to stop using mercury and disassociate itself from the mercury production industry. For countries with ASGM operations, enforceable legal and regulatory frameworks, such as Mining Codes, must exist to prevent the proliferation of the mercury trade. This will inevitably improve the livelihoods of vulnerable populations engaged in the ASGM sector.
With such a high percentage of global mercury emissions attributed to ASGM operations, if mercury is de-hubbed from global gold production, the public health crisis caused by anthropogenic mercury pollution will stop, too.
 See, for more on miners’ statistics, UN Environment, “Global Mercury Assessment 2018,” UNEP – UN Environment Programme, March 4, 2019: pp. 59, https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/publication/global-mercury-assessment-2018.
 See, for impact of ASGM on people’s livelihood, Hinton, Jennifer J, Marcello M Veiga, and A.Tadeu C Veiga. “Clean Artisanal Gold Mining: a Utopian Approach?” Journal of Cleaner Production. Elsevier, April 18, 2002. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959652602000318?casa_token=puKbxYOiq3UAAAAA:t0yQju3ORFh9aHyghK8vljDAPIkWiVbrsgLZpsZJ4wTUPFg4Qk43UDfZ0IZgqwVjIUBX3A-crV8-Sw. For more statistics on gold mining, see, “ASGM 101,” planetGOLD, accessed September 9, 2020, https://www.planetgold.org/asgm-101.
 “Making Mercury History in the Artisanal & Small-Scale Gold Mining Sector,” Global Environment Facility, October 12, 2017, https://www.thegef.org/news/making-mercury-history-artisanal-small-scale-gold-mining-sector.
 For more on the impact on water sources, see under water remediation, Louisa J Esdaile and Justin M Chalker, “The Mercury Problem in Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining,” Chemistry (Weinheim an der Bergstrasse, Germany) (John Wiley and Sons Inc., May 11, 2018), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5969110/.
 Methylmercury is a known developmental neurotoxicant. For more, see, Deborah C. Rice, Rita Schoeny, and Kate Mahaffey, “Methods and Rationale for Derivation of a Reference Dose for Methylmercury by the U.S. EPA,” Risk Analysis 23, no. 1 (February 19, 2003): pp. 107-115, https://doi.org/10.1111/1539-6924.00294. Also see, Klara Gustin et al., “Methylmercury Exposure and Cognitive Abilities and Behavior at 10 Years of Age,” Environment International 102 (February 17, 2017): pp. 97-105, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2017.02.004.
 Richard C. Paddock, “The Hidden Cost of Gold: Birth Defects and Brain Damage,” The New York Times (The New York Times, November 9, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/09/world/asia/indonesia-mercury-pollution-gold-mining.html.