Every day 4 tons of mercury are released into the environment. Yes, 4 tons, you read that right. Almost all this mercury comes from small-scale and artisanal gold mining, which accounts for about 20% of gold mined today. (Disclaimer: not all small-scale and artisanal gold mines are illegal and not all of them use mercury) The mining communities using mercury are often very poor and live in remote areas of South America and Africa, and mercury is a cheap and readily available solution for extracting gold. Mercury use here often poisons the miners, leaves their children with birth defects and neurological impairments, and devastated the environment and native wildlife
But if you’re reading this, you’re probably not mining gold in the Colombian jungle, so why should you care (besides the fact that this is literally killing people)? The mercury that’s released into the environment isn’t going anywhere and it doesn’t disappear once it’s been evaporated. That mercury makes its way into waterways and spreads with precipitation. It poisons the little fish in the waterways until they get eaten by progressively bigger fish until you eat. And that fish is full of toxic mercury. It is also contributing to climate change as it is burned off and evaporated, and mercury fumes are even more toxic. And illegal gold mining with mercury is rapidly contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon, our biggest defense against climate change. This is a global problem and isn’t just affecting the miners in their remote mining communities.
Safer and more effective means of gold extraction do exist right now, but they are much costlier and often require electricity, which the miners in these remote areas don’t have access to. So, Toby Pomeroy, a Portland-based jeweler and member of the council of responsible mining, is spearheading a challenging project to find safe alternatives to mercury use that these miners can use instead in the real conditions they work under. The mainstream jewelry industry wants to distance itself from this issue because they don’t want to risk the image of gold jewelry instead of being part of the solution to a problem they know about. To learn more about the project or contribute check out mercuryfreemining.org