Mercury, Mining and Mongolian Ninjas

Mongolia old man

This week’s post comes from Andrew McCartor, Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who was recently in Mongolia.


There is no preparing for the Mongolian winter. When I stepped onto the tarmac in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in the early morning of February 10th, the cold shot straight through my two winter jackets as if to mock them.

It was -31 degrees Fahrenheit (-35C). I was in Mongolia to kickoff a two-year project to support healthy, sustainable livelihoods in rural Mongolian mining communities and to introduce mercury-free gold mining methods.

Size of Western Europe, Population of Brooklyn

Mongolia is approximately the size of Western Europe, but with the population of Brooklyn. So if you’re picturing a sweeping, beautiful and little-inhabited landscape, you’ve got it. In fact, much of Mongolia looks like the old default Microsoft Windows background with the rolling green hills and cloud dotted sky.

At its height, the Mongolian empire was the largest contiguous empire in history, spanning from Korea to Hungary. After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the economy was in disarray and many Mongolians returned to the traditional nomadic lifestyle of herding livestock.

20% of Rural Mongolian Workforce are Gold “Ninjas”

Between 1999 and 2002, Mongolia experienced three consecutive dry summers followed by extraordinarily harsh winters (apparently worse than the balmy -31F I was experiencing). During this period, 11 million livestock animals perished, wiping out the income source for much of the rural population.

Photos: Garrie Pixerten and Enkhbold Sumiya

These events, combined with a surge in the price of gold, enticed more than 100,000 Mongolians (20% of the rural workforce) into the small-scale gold mining business by 2007.

Throughout the country, these miners are referred to as “ninjas.” The etymology of the term ninja seems to stem from the green panning bowls that the miners carry on their back, resembling the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yes, really).

This sudden and dramatic increase in informal mining activity threatened both the environment and public health. The primary risk was the widespread use of mercury to separate gold from mined dirt and rock. Mercury is a potentially deadly neurotoxicant. Once released into the environment, it can quickly enter the food chain and poison people and animals.

In 2008, the Mongolian government banned the use of mercury in mining. Without a suitable alternative, many miners were immediately faced with the choice of either losing their livelihood or continuing their work illegally. With the generous support of the European Union, Blacksmith Institute is now working to provide such an alternative.

From Philippines to Mongolia: Testing a Mercury-Free Alternative 

MongoliaFor at least the last thirty years, independent miners in the Philippines have been effectively and efficiently extracting gold without the use of mercury. These miners use a method to separate gold from other material that is commonly referred to as the “borax method” or “direct smelting method.” This method uses a environmentally benign substance, borax, to reduce the melting point of gold, thus allowing miners to smelt (or melt) the gold out of the other material. You can find a more complete description of this process here, or watch a video.

Over the next two years, Blacksmith Institute will work with the Mongolian government, civil society groups and miner’s collectives in Mongolia to conduct environmental monitoring, health education, training in mercury-free mining methods, and other programs to provide mining communities with a safe, legal and sustainable source of income.

After a very positive project inception meeting, I look forward to collaborating with the many public, private and non-profit actors that have already made great progress on this issue. Mongolia is a dramatic and beautiful country, with incredibly warn, hospitable people. I am eager to come back, but never again in February.

Mongolia plains animals



Helping Countries Abide By Minamata

Photo from Revisiting Minamata, and a Storied Mentor, New York Times, Credit: Takeshi Ishikawa

Earlier this month, Blacksmith was with the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) in Minamata, Japan, to witness the landmark signing of the first international treaty to curb mercury pollution, and to help countries abide by the agreement.

To date, Blacksmith has identified 425 sites contaminated by mercury, with about 10.9 million men, women and children at risk from these sites (see table).

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

As secretariat for the GAHP, Blacksmith hosted an event in Minamata to introduce delegates from 140 countries to GAHP resources, which include technical and financial resources to help low-and middle-income countries reduce mercury emissions and mitigate human health risks from mercury-contaminated sites.

The event also presented examples of successful on-the-ground projects conducted by two GAHP members: UNIDO and Indonesian Ministry of Environment.

“We want low- and middle-income countries to know that they can ask the GAHP for help to abide by the Minamata Convention. They will not have to do this alone,” says Blacksmith president Richard Fuller.

Mercury is one of the top six toxic threats, as identified by Blacksmith’s 2010 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report, and is considered one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern by WHO.

Because of its propensity to travel and linger, mercury, in particular, is a global problem that can only be solved with an approach that is international in scope.  This is why the Minamata Convention is key to a better, mercury-free future.  With GAHP’s help, it can be a reality.

To join GAHP or seek GAHP help, contact the GAHP Secretariat at

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

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

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.

This week, representatives from over 130 countries are gathering in Minamata for the first global treaty to mitigate and prevent mercury pollution. This long overdue 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.


  • Mercury travels – When released, mercury rises into the atmosphere and can travel long distances, contaminating oceans, lakes and soil worldwide. Mercury builds up in the bodies of certain fish as methylmercury – the reason why pregnant women 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.
  • The leading source of mercury pollution is now recognized to be artisanal gold mining.  Around the world, small scale gold miners working informally or illegally to make a meagre living, mix and burn off toxic mercury to extract gold from tiny bits of ore.
  • Artisanal gold mining is responsible for over 30% of the world’s mercury emissions – about 1,400 tons of toxic mercury released per year (according to UNIDO)
  • At least a quarter of the world’s total gold supply comes from artisanal gold mining.
  • 4.5 million women and 600,000 children are among some 15 million artisanal gold miners being poisoned by direct contact with toxic mercury.
  • The largest source of mercury poisoning in fish worldwide is mercury used in artisanal gold mining.


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 Blacksmith Institute’s Toxic Sites Identification Program, as of Oct 2013)


  • 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 prospect of successful mercury reduction following Minamata may improve with the introduction of 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, the GAHP 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). The GAHP will share resources and expertise.  To seek GAHP help or learn more, contact the GAHP Secretariat at
  • Various initiatives are being introduced or explored around the world. They include programs to train miners in safe practices, programs to teach communities about mercury risks and behaviors to reduce exposure to mercury, programs to introduce technologies that reduce or eliminate mercury use and programs that help mining communities become more organized and efficient. These include:
  • Mercury recapture and reuselow-cost mercury retorts, which can recapture as much as 97% of the mercury released by miners, are being introduced and used in certain areas. Blacksmith has been able to reduce the amount of toxic mercury released into the atmosphere by an estimated 4,000 kg in 2010 from one mercury hotspot – Indonesia.
  • Direct gold smelting – in the Philippines, a group of miners have revived a century-old method of gold extraction using non-toxic borax instead of mercury. Blacksmith has been working on a trial of the borax method in Indonesia.  If successful, non-toxic borax could replace mercury in artisanal gold mining and potentially have a major impact on mercury emissions worldwide.

Related Links:

Mercury Negotiations Recharged With Hot Chocolate and Cookies

Fernando Lugris, chair of the INC negotiations (left), with representatives of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution at INC5.

I attended the INC5 mercury negotiations in Geneva last month along with members of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) from the EU, UNEP, UNIDO, and GIZ, and representatives from SAICM and various countries including Peru and Uruguay. We were there to share information about the GAHP and we did it with the help of “sweet breaks.”

So in the no-nonsense arena of the INC5 negotiations, where 750 participants from more than 140 countries huddled together for over a week, we set up tables filled with hot chocolate, cookies and colorful cupcakes to provide respite for the weary.  It turns out, the treats played a small but welcome role on the sidelines of the talks, which produced an agreement between more than 140 countries on rules to curb mercury pollution.

Bringing different groups together is what Blacksmith does on many of our remediation projects, and over the years we’ve learnt that sometimes all it takes is something simple to get people to come to an agreement. The treats refreshed and recharge participants and also provided the opportunity for casual connections. I like to think that the many valuable side conversations about pollution and mercury that took place over cookies and hot chocolate left an impression on the proceedings.

In business, many deals have been sealed over dinner and drinks. The path to a cleaner world, I believe, follows the same general course. It is all about building relationships. The GAHP is the result of an international coalition – a network of relationships – that took hold over years of conversations.  Now, we at the GAHP are extending our hands to low-and middle-income countries in need of help to deal with pollution issues. Along the way, I am sure we will share numerous meals and cups of tea with representatives at every level. We will talk, discuss, exchange ideas and work together to get rid of pollution.  And when the cleanup is done, we will look back and remember how that conversation started, over hot chocolate and sweet treats in the middle of a crowd.

Related: Q and A about the GAHP and mercury