Playing with Mercury

NESTLED in a former cocoa-farming region in southwestern Ghana, the town of Prestea boasts more than 150 small-scale gold mines in the backyards of abandoned farms. The town, with a population of about 35,000, also sits covered in permanent smog—a red dust that stains white goats crimson. It is the result of lethal mercury, on which miners all over Ghana rely to refine their gold. In Prestea, where gravediggers are in greater supply than doctors, death from mercury poisoning is routine.

Ghana has the highest mercury emissions in Africa, but the problem is widespread. In the past few years, tens of thousands of small-scale mining sites have surfaced across Asia, Latin America as well as other parts of Africa. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that between 1,000 and 4,000 tonnes of mercury are released into the air and water globally each year.

Which is why, after four years of negotiations, UNEP is organising the first global conference to confront rising mercury emissions and the threat to the environment. In January 140 countries signed and ratified the Mercury Treaty, agreeing to cut mercury pollution by setting enforceable international limits; now a conference will convene on October 9th in Minamata, Japan to put the plan into action.

The alternatives used by big mining companies, which involve heavy machinery and cyanide, are costly and time consuming. “Try to put yourself in their shoes,” says Gavin Hilson, a mining expert at the University of Surrey. “Some people drink tea with too much sugar or smoke a lot, and we know it’s bad. We’re trying to tell villagers who have been using mercury their whole lives to change their method. There needs to be a constant presence in that village, to continually educate these people and show them that there are viable alternatives. It’s a collective responsibility.”