Tanzania’s Artisanal Gold Miners Slowly Poison Themselves With Mercury
About 30% of Tanzania’s artisanal gold miners are women.

GEITA, TANZANIA—As the morning breeze sweeps across a rugged mining site at Tanzania’s northwest Sabora village, Judith Nyakeke sits under a huge acacia tree, briskly sorting pieces of rock with her bare hands ready to wash.

“This is a tough job but it can be quite rewarding,” she says.

The 39-year-old mother of four, who has been working as a miner for 13 years, adeptly shaking a giant mesh sieve to filter sand from the crushed ore. 

She then wades into a muddy stream to wash the silt encrusted with gold in the water.

Then she goes to her home to mix it with mercury to get a hardened amalgam which she burns on an open flame to distil the mercury and get purer gold ready to sell.

As the amalgam is sizzling on a heated pan, it emits toxic fumes, that waft past Nyakeke’s 12-year-old daughter, Jane, who squats nearby to look.

“People say mercury is a dangerous substance, but I have been using it for many years without any harm,” says Nyakeke, who has a slight stammer.

 Nyakeke’s quest for survival has taken her to the hazardous depth of artisanal gold mining in Tanzania’s northwestern Geita region where men, women and children are jostling to eke out a living.

“I don’t worry too much about health problems. My focus is to put food on my family’s table and educate my children. Other things, God will take care of them,” she adds.

Toxic substance

Mercury is a toxic substance that attacks the central nervous system. Exposure to the shiny liquid metal may cause neurological problems, including impaired coordination, slurred speech, memory loss, and life-long disability, medical experts say.

The toxic substance can cripple the cardiovascular and immune systems, attack kidneys and affect the gastrointestinal tract and lungs.

Mercury poisoning, with symptoms that include twitching, tremors and blurred vision, may also reduce women’s fertility and cause miscarriages, according to doctors at Tanzania’s Muhimbili National Hospital.

Mercury poisoning, which the doctors call “the invisible epidemic”, is hard to detect and can be potentially harmful to children.

In Sabora village, some female miners strap their small children onto their backs when mixing or burning mercury, not knowing that they are exposing them to toxic fumes.

Across Tanzania, hundreds of men women and children are toiling in hazardous goldmines,  exposing themselves to grave health risks.

Although small-scale gold mining is a vital source of income for rural communities in Tanzania – Africa’s fourth largest gold producer – experts say it is hazardous because miners use toxic substances to obtain gold.

A Health Policy Watch investigation in Geita shows that the miners who touch mercury with their bare hands are oblivious to the grave health risks.

Labour-intensive work

Up on the hill at the impoverished Sabora Village, half a dozen men with flashlights strapped on their foreheads emerge from a ground pit, carrying buckets filled with rocks.

Armed with heavy-duty chisels, the miners say they spent six hours crushing the rock to get fist-sized pieces. Then they pass it on to female colleagues who sort and wash them in the river.

Dressed in a dazzling African Kitenge outfit meticulously patterned with blue and yellow marks, Nyakeke and other women crush the ore into smaller fine particles, sort grade and wash them.

Judith Nyakeke right, and her colleague washing crushed rocks encrusted with gold.

The use of mercury in these makeshift goldmines also has a devastating effect on the environment as it seeps into the food chain, causing birth defects, neurological disorders even death, according to Nasra Semgomba, an environmental health expert at Tanzania’s Ministry of Health.

The unsafe disposal of mercury in Tanzania has created a toxic mix in the country’s river system exposing people downstream to serious health risks due to water and fish contamination, she added.

“Small-scale miners should not at all use mercury for processing gold, it is  pretty dangerous for their health,” Semgomba said.

Despite her warning, Health Policy Watch saw artisanal miners in Geita cutting trees, diverting waterways and reshaping the land in their desperate search for gold. While the miners are struggling to eke out a living, they are also disposing mercury through the air, water, and soil. 

Wider problem

Artisanal miners sieving gold encrusted rocks

Across Africa, men, women and children work in labour-intensive artisanal gold mines to eke out a living. Approximately 12% of gold production worldwide comes from artisanal mining. Globally there are 15 million artisanal gold miners, working in 70 countries.

Pushed by sheer poverty, artisanal gold miners in the east African nation often suffer chronic intoxication.

The investigations conducted by Health Policy Watch in Tanzania’s northern Geita region and in the southern highlands of Mbeya shows the miners routinely burn mercury-gold nuggets at their homes, exposing themselves and their families to hazardous fumes.

Some of the miners in Geita told Health Policy Watch that they know the risk involved but believe they are immune to the adverse effects of the liquid metal as they have been using it for a long time without feeling any side effects.

“This is my 11th year as a miner. I have been using mercury without any harm,” said Martin Kulwa, a small-scale miner in Geita.

The miners use mercury for gold extraction because it is cheap and can easily be obtained. While developed nations have adopted safe, cleaner alternatives for gold extractions and have enforced tougher rules for mercury use, African authorities often turn a blind eye to the health risks posed by mercury, citing low capacity and a lack of expertise to deter its use.

Despite efforts to ban mercury use for gold extraction, the toxic liquid is still being widely used by small-scale miners in Tanzania.

“I don’t think there is political will to ban the use of mercury since it is a big business in this country despite its harmful effects,” said Rubera Mato, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Ardhi University in Dar es Salaam.

Child labour

In its 2013 report, “Toxic Toil: Child Labour and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania’s Small-Scale Gold Mines,” Human Rights Watch revealed shocking details of children working in unlicensed small-scale gold mines in Tanzania, risking their lives due to exposure to mercury.

The global rights watchdog said young children are lured to work in the gold mines in the hope of a better life but often end up in the vicious circle of danger and despair.

Tanzania has long been criticised by environmental and civil society groups for its lax regulations to deter child labour.

“Our policies on health and environment are in shambles. We need clearcut policies and laws to deter environmental hazards” said  Zuhra Ahmed, an environmental Activist at Tanzania’s Youth Biodiversity Network 

Estimates of mercury usage vary from between 13.2 and 214.4 tonnes in Tanzania every year, with the approximately 1.2 million artisanal miners being the largest number of users. Between 10% and 20%  of all the gold produced in Tanzania is produced by small scale miners, about 30% of whom are women, according to government data.

Global treaty

Globally the Minamata Convention, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the effects of mercury that came into effect in 2017, requires countries to develop national action plans to reduce and eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mines.

But unlike other nations, Tanzania has done almost nothing to regulate the import or use of mercury which causes birth defects, neurological problems even deaths as people consume tainted fish, Ahmed said.

Dotto Benjamin, Chief Mine Inspector in Tanzania’s Vice President’s office (environment) denied the allegations, saying the government has been working to eliminate the worst practices, particularly the open burning of amalgam and processing of mercury-contaminated tailings with cyanide to recover gold, as well as raising awareness on the effect of mercury and promoting alternative technologies.

“A national action plan has been developed to meet the requirement of the Minamata Convention and serves as a national framework for fostering sound management of mercury use and where possible eliminate its use,” Benjamin said. 

United Nations human rights experts in Geneva recently reiterated their call for an end to the trade in mercury and its use in small-scale gold mining.

Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, recently urged nations to address human rights violations related to the use of mercury in small-scale gold mines and protect the environment by prohibiting its trade and use in such mining.

“In most parts of the world where mercury is used in small-scale gold mining, the human rights of miners, their families and communities, often living in abject poverty, are increasingly threatened by mercury contamination,” he said.

Maria Kemilembe, left, preparing a gold-mercury amalgam before it burning

Indigenous peoples are particularly affected by the destruction and pollution of their territories, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and contamination of their food sources, according to Orellana.

“In order to more effectively combat human rights violations related to the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining and protect the environment, states and the Convention should prohibit the use and trade of mercury in such mining. This will be an essential step towards strengthening other elements of the Convention and making them more effective,” he said.

Asha Kisena, a resident of Nyang’wale village in Tanzania’s Geita region looks older than her 43 years. Her sun-parched skin and the repairs to her tattered dress declare her poverty.

Kisena has been working as a miner for many years, but recently her husband, George, noticed she was sick.

When she showed up at a district hospital in Geita in March, she couldn’t walk, her speech was slurred and she couldn’t walk and was not able to feel her hands.

Shortly after being admitted, Kisena fainted and was hospitalised for many weeks.

Her husband said doctors discovered that his wife’s desperate condition was caused by mercury poisoning.

“She is still sick and we don’t have much hope that her condition will improve,” George said.

But for Nyakeke, there is little choice: “This is my livelihood, I am under no illusion I can quit my job anytime soon,” she said

Image Credits: Kizito Makoye.

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