Fact Sheet: The Toxic Toll of Mercury – Facts, Figures and the Future of “Dancing Cat Fever” Disease

Updated 2019

Child gold miners in Indonesia

It has been over 50 years since the first sign of mass mercury poisoning emerged in Minamata, Japan.

Cats in the village started staggering and tilting, doing a strange “dancing cat fever.” Then people started acting the same way.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is the first global treaty to mitigate and prevent mercury pollution.  It was signed by delegates from 128 countries in 2013. As of 2019, the Minamata Convention on Mercury has reached 105 ratifications.

This international agreement is a step in the right direction because mercury affects everyone, and requires a global approach to solve. Here are some facts and figures about toxic mercury that might surprise you.

FACTS:

  • Mercury travels – When released, mercury rises into the atmosphere and can travel long distances, contaminating oceans and rivers worldwide. Mercury builds up in the bodies of certain fish as methylmercury – the reason why pregnant women worldwide are often told to avoid eating certain seafood.
  • Mercury lingers – It takes decades or even centuries for toxic mercury to cycle through the environment.  It transfers back and forth between soil and water and the atmosphere over the years.
  • Mercury is one of the top six toxic threats, and is considered one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern by WHO.
  • Mercury is especially devastating to children.  Its damage is irreversible. Even in small amounts, mercury may cause serious health problems.  According to the WHO, mercury threatens the development of infants in utero and disrupts the physiological and neurological development of children. It attacks the central nervous system and several organs, and in higher doses, it can kill.
  • Artisanal gold mining is responsible for over 30% of the world’s mercury emissionsabout 1,400 tons of toxic mercury released per year. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is responsible for over 700 tonnes per year of mercury emissions to the atmosphere and an additional 800 tonnes per year of mercury releases to land and water, making it the largest anthropogenic source of mercury.
  • About 10 to 25 percent of the world’s total gold supply comes from artisanal gold mining.
  • 4.5 million women and 600,000 children are among some 10-15 million artisanal gold miners being poisoned by direct contact with toxic mercury.

FIGURES:

While mercury travels and affects people worldwide, the problem is most acute in certain hotspots.

  • 425: Number of sites worldwide contaminated by mercury*
  • 10.9 Million: Number of people at risk from these sites*
Pie chart: Percentage of total population at risk from mercury by pollution source industry (*data from Pure Earth’s Toxic Sites Identification Program, as of Oct 2013)

WHAT IS BEING DONE:

  • Global treaty – The Minamata Convention will help work towards a reduction in worldwide mercury emissions. One provision requires countries to devise national action plans to help limit and control artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
  • Global alliance – The GAHP (Global Alliance on Health and Pollution), supported by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Commission and UNIDO, among other agencies, and for which Pure Earth serves as Secretariat, is the first alliance of its kind to respond to the threat of toxic pollution on a worldwide scale. Any low or middle-income country can approach the GAHP for help to reduce mercury emissions (or solve other toxic pollution problems). To seek GAHP help or learn more, contact the GAHP Secretariat at info@gahp.net.

Learn more:

Restoring Rainforest Stripped By Gold Mining in the Amazon

Rainforest Reforestation Brings Degraded Mining Sites Back to Life, Provide Models of Hope

Meet The Maqques: A Family Of Gold Miners Going Mercury Free So They Can Work Together Safely

Transforming The Chichiqueros Gold Mining Community In Peru’s Rainforest Into A Mercury-Free Model

In Photos: Teaching Artisanal Gold Miners To Extract Gold Without Mercury

A Mother’s Story: Mongolian “Gold Ninja” Goes Mercury-Free For Her Children

Empowering Women Gold Miners in Indonesia

Mongolia Teaching Van Trailblazes A Path To Mercury-Free Mining

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