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Indonesia: Mercury Contamination from Artisanal Gold Mining

the details…
Key pollutant
Artisanal gold mining
  • Direct exposure
  • Water
  • Airborne
Population affected
Children Under 6 Affected
Artisanal Gold Mining
World Bank, EC/UNIDO, Pure Earth individual donors, Oak Foundation
Project Partners

YAYASAN TAMBUHAK SINTA (YTS), Ministry of Environment and Forestry

Pure Earth continues our work in Indonesia on reducing mercury contamination from artisanal gold mining.  Our work includes training artisanal gold-miners in mercury-free methods, conducting cleanups and interventions.

The Problem

UNIDO estimates that mercury amalgamation from this kind of gold mining results in the release of an estimated 1,000 tons of mercury per year, which constitutes about 30 percent of the world’s anthropogenic mercury emissions. It is estimated that between 10 and 15 million artisanal and small-scale gold miners worldwide, including 4.5 million women and 600,000 children [1]. According to UNIDO, as much as 95 percent of all mercury used in artisanal gold mining is released into the environment, creating a danger on all fronts—economic, environmental and human health (2005). Covered by the 2008 World’s Worst Polluted Places Report, ASGM still threatens today’s world environment and public health.

Health Impact

Children that are exposed to mercury are particularly at risk for developmental problems. Exposure to mercury can cause kidney problems, arthritis, memory loss, miscarriages, psychotic reactions, respiratory failure, neurological damage and even death.

Exposure Pathways

Mercury is a persistent global contaminant, and it has dangerous effect to the human’s vital organs. Mercury can enter the human body through various pathways, including inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, as well as maternal mercury transfer. Once mercury is released into waterways, it becomes a more toxic form of methyl-mercury, which bioaccumulates in the food chain (e.g. high fat-content fish) through bacterial digestion.

Past Activity

Pure Earth partner, local NGO  YTS, implemented a community-based, participatory project to reduce atmospheric mercury releases.  In Mt. Muro, the work focused on designing, manufacturing, transporting, field-testing and distributing efficient and safe large-capacity retorts capable of burning 10 to 30 kg of amalgam per session. When this retort was used on daily basis, a 20% increase in efficiency in the recapturing mercury released was shown, as compared to the locally made retort used by the miners. One participant reported a mercury recapture rate of 90% (estimated 80 – 100 kg per month) and a corresponding reduction in costs to miners.  In the Upper Kahayan River, the intervention activities focus on supplying water-box condensers to gold shops that are burning gold-mercury amalgam.

Over the years, miners were also educated about the health effects of Mercury and research is being done on alternative methods that would be be mercury-free. Currently, Pure Earth is testing and teaching a mercury-free method of gold mining rediscovered in the Philippines.

YTS continues to work with Pure Earth support to expand health education and alternative mercury-free techniques trainings  in order to reduce the amount of mercury used and the consequent health impacts.