Global Mercury Program

Pure Earth has identified mercury as one of the world’s top toxic threats. Because much of the mercury released into the environment is the result of artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM),  Pure Earth’s global mercury work focuses on ASGM mining communities around the world. To date, the program has:

  • Trained over 1500 miners, including many women,  to go mercury-free so they can continue working safely,
  • Educated nearly 6000 mining community members about the dangers of mercury poisoning and how to protect themselves, and
  • Started the reforestation of over 8 hectares of rainforest polluted and stripped by gold mining activities in the Amazon.

Understanding The Problem

Around the world, artisanal and small-scale gold miners working to feed their families use mercury in the gold separation process (known as “amalgamation”), which results in the discharge of an estimated 1,000 tons of mercury annually, representing about 30% of the world’s anthropogenic mercury releases, according to United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

About a quarter of the world’s gold comes from ASGM.

As much as 95 percent of all mercury used in ASGM mining is released into the environment, where it travels around the world, dropping into oceans and rivers, contaminating the seafood we all consume.  Once mercury pollution reaches waterways, it is transform into methylmercury—one of the most toxic organic compounds and a powerful neurotoxin.

In general, infants are most at risk for developmental problems from mercury exposure, which may occur through breast feeding. Consumption of contaminated fish by pregnant women  also contributes to neurodevelopmental problems in developing fetuses, with symptoms including mental retardation, delayed development, language disorders, seizures and a loss of memory.

Pure Earth estimates that 19 million people are at risk for exposure to mercury globally, with an estimated burden of disease of 1.5 million DALYs. As of 2015, Pure Earth’s Toxic Sites Identification Program has identified and assessed over 500 sites around the world where exposure to mercury threatens the health of the population.

The Solution

Pure Earth’s strategies have proven effective in addressing mercury contamination. Our approach includes:

  • Mercury-Free Methods help miners go mercury-free to safeguard their livelihoods and enable them to work safely while protecting their families and environment.
  • Education raises awareness about mercury poisoning with miners, their families, school children and others in the community.
  • Reforestation rehabilitates previously degraded ecosystems.  Pure Earth is one of the few organizations working directly with miners to safely close out old mining sites through reforestation.
  • Market Solutions help create awareness and demand for mercury-free gold, and connect jewelers and others in this industry to mercury-free miners.

School children in Mongolia learn about mercury in their community from a Pure Earth team.

Pure Earth’s Impact

Pure Earth is currently working in Peru, Colombia, and Indonesia on projects addressing mercury pollution associated with artisanal gold mining. Download our Global Mercury Program guide to see strategies and more project examples.

Peru

As part of a grant funded by the Tiffany and Co. Foundation, Pure Earth has been working since 2019 with artisanal miners in the Peruvian region of Madre de Dios to reduce mercury-use and promote ecological mine closures. In January 2020, Pure Earth signed an agreement with Tauro Fátima Artisanal Mining Association (AMATAF), a mining association with 12 formalized concessions operating in the Buffer Zone of the Tambopata National Reserve. In February 2020, Pure Earth restored 2.5 ha of degraded rainforest in the Linda II Mining Concession of AMATAF. Twelve miners and sixteen field experts planted 2,778 seedlings from ten species. In August 2020, in collaboration with the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA), Pure Earth held a training for nine miners in Amazon restoration methodology, which included instruction on the artisanal production of the soil amendment biochar. During the lockdown period, the team developed several virtual activities, including a report about the role of deforestation in accelerating mercury transport; a report about the local supply chain and an evaluation of gold certifications in the local context; and, together with other organizations and government authorities, the publication of a Covid-19 safety protocol for artisanal and small-scale miners in Madre de Dios.

Colombia

As part of a grant from the US Department of State, Pure Earth is working on:

  • Development of a technical protocol for the management of tailings contaminated with mercury, which includes collection, treatment, transport, storage and final disposal.
  • Review of the legal framework for the adequate management of tailings in Colombia
  • Mineralogical and chemical characterization of tailings contaminated with mercury to evaluate its processing potential in obtaining residual gold.
  • Evaluation of copper plates technology as a means of capturing and reducing mercury present in contaminated tailings from small-scale mining.
  • Construction of an economic model for the processing of contaminated tailings and their potential for obtaining gold.

Additionally, in support of the implementation of the project PlanetGold, Pure Earth is conducting the following activities:

  • Collection of data for the baseline of contaminated sites in Colombia,
  • Development of a risk-based prioritization methodology,
  • Development of a pollution index based on the present mercury concentrations and health risk, in order to prioritize remediation interventions.

Indonesia

Pure Earth supports Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta (YTS) to implement UNDP GOLD-ISMIA projects on the capacity building of government stakeholders in the ASGM sector and the empowerment of artisanal women miners.

The projects have capacitated approximately 260 government officials (2019-present) and aims to assist the establishment of 2 artisanal women miners cooperatives in Kuantan Singingi, Riau (2020-2021). For the UNDP GOLD-ISMIA, Pure Earth also supported Pact to capacitate miners to access the business and financial products (2019-2020). Pure Earth, in collaboration with YTS, has been providing technical expertise on the development of UNDP GOLD-ISMIA modules for ASGM formalization (2020).

Eastern Europe/Central Asia

  • 1100 miners trained in mercury-free techniques.
  • 3750 children, community members, health workers and government officials educated.
  • Miners, especially women, report increased earnings.

Latin America

Asia

  • 200 miners trained in mercury-free techniques
  • 1500 government stakeholders, health workers, miners and community members educated
  • 85 mercury sites identified and assessed
  • 100 retorts/70 water-box-condensers distributed, reducing mercury emissions by 4750 kgs annually
  • Participation in Women’s Working Group organized to give artisanal women miners opportunities to earn more with mercury-free gold

Africa

  • 250 mercury sites identified and assessed
  • 10 communities trained to reduce mercury use