How Mercury Poisons Gold Miners, Water In Indonesia

Sep 18, 2013

Next month, 140 nations will sign the United Nations’ Minamata Convention.

It’s a treaty that aims to regulate the use of mercury worldwide, and is named after the Japanese community that witnessed the world’s biggest mass mercury poisoning 60 years ago.

Today, contamination with mercury is a particular problem in countries where small-scale gold miners operate. Mercury is used to separate fragments of gold from the rock or earth.

Indonesia is one of the world’s largest informal producers of this precious metal. The BBC’s Linda Pressly reports from Borneo on the impact of unregulated mining and the threat of mercury.


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Next month, 140 nations are expected to sign the United Nations' treaty to regulate the use of mercury around the world. Contamination with mercury is a particular problem in countries where small-scale gold miners operate. Mercury is used to separate fragments of gold from rock. Indonesia is one of the world's largest informal producers of gold. The BBC's Linda Pressly reports from an unregulated mining site on the island of Borneo. It was forest just six months ago.

LINDA PRESSLY: Sumali Agrawal is the technical director of YTS, a local NGO working to limit the impact of mercury.

SUMALI AGRAWAL: As you can see, all the trees are now dry and dead. This sudden change happens in the course of a few months. There's a layer of gold, usually about five to 10 meters down. At the end of the day, they get one or two buckets of sand which has particles of gold in it. And then they wash that very carefully in the gold pan together with some mercury.

PRESSLY: Mercury separates the gold from the Earth, but it's a persistent pollutant. It doesn't break down. And tons of it are dumped into the environment in Indonesia by the miners. Small-scale gold mining offers poor communities huge economic opportunities. But contamination with mercury doesn't only threaten the environment.

Stephan Bose-O'Reilly is a German doctor who studied the health effects of mercury. On the island of Lombok, in the village of Sekotong Tengah, he finds a place under a large tree where he can examine two boys, age 12 and 10. They work collecting and recycling used mercury. So he's getting them to jump, hands above their heads, clap their hands above their head, at the same time, jump. The rest of the village thinks it's absolutely hilarious.


PRESSLY: Legs together, legs apart. Legs together, legs apart. As the doctor observes the children, he becomes very serious.

DR. STEPHAN BOSE-O'REILLY: And close your eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)


BOSE-O'REILLY: So what you can see is that this little boy has already a tremor of his eyelids, and the tremor is a very typical symptom for mercury intoxication. It's a young boy just working since two years and he already has some symptoms which are typical for long-time mercury exposure. Mercury is causing a damage to your brain, mainly to your cerebellum. And the cerebellum controls the movements. So the problem is that the control of the movement is already impaired in these little, young boys after two years living and working here.

PRESSLY: So in five years, in 10 years, how might this develop, this health problem?

BOSE-O'REILLY: These kids will be full-time workers in five years. They will even use more mercury, and these symptoms will increase. And these symptoms will never disappear during their lifetime. But they still have to work. It's the only way they have here to make any money. But what we have to question now ourselves is, do we really know the price of gold? You ever consider that the price is worth their health? They're paying with their health that we get more gold.

PRESSLY: Although the use of mercury for small-scale gold mining is banned in Indonesia, it's difficult to enforce. And there's a hope that the forthcoming ratification of the U.N.'s convention will mean international assistance to help miners change the way they work. Small-scale gold miners are hard at work in 70, mostly poor nations, right around the world.

HOBSON: The BBC's Linda Pressly reporting from the island of Borneo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.