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Nature · Economy

Mercury in Indonesia

January 20th, 2014
in:Nature, Economy
by:Jonathan Lutes
located in:Indonesia
tags:gold-mining, Indonesia, mercury, mercury poisoning

Indonesia, home to one of the world’s largest gold industries, produced 60 metric tons of gold in 2012. It is estimated that the country produced an additional 65 to 100 metric tons illegally, using a purifying technique that raises concerns among environmental and health experts.

As Joe Cochrane has written for the New York Times, illegal small scale gold mining and processing is conducted in people’s back yards and is funded and protected by businessmen, as well as by corrupt police, army, and local officials. What makes this particular method of gold processing dangerous is the use of mercury to extract the gold. The added mercury forms an amalgam, binding the gold in the ore. A final step of burning evaporates the mercury and the result is a purified gold product. While industrial gold mines are prohibited from applying this technique, it facilitates quick cash for small-scale producers, the numbers of which are rising; one reason is the affordable price of mercury.

In another piece on the mercury trade in Indonesia,  Cochrane confronts the Indonesian deputy minister for hazardous substances about the vast discrepancy between legal mercury exports and officially approved imports. The data leave almost no doubt that mercury is being smuggled into Indonesia in large quantities, with Indonesian officials lacking any control over the smuggling routes. Having studied rising exports of mercury from countries including Thailand and the United States, Yuyum Ismawati, an Indonesian environmentalist working in Britain, is certain that this is the case. Ms. Ismawati is the co-founder of BaliFokus, an organization that estimates the number of Indonesian miners to have risen from fifty thousand to one million since 2006.

Mercury pollution of water and air poses health and environmental risks in Indonesia, and small-scale gold mining is the biggest culprit. Hair samples of people working in or living nearby small-scale mines have shown elevated mercury levels; the same is true for air samples taken in these areas.  According to the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, Indonesia is responsible for up to ten percent of global mercury emissions, and some parts of Indonesia show the highest mercury contamination readings on earth. While mercury contaminates soil and water, including fish ponds and rice fields, its effects are oftentimes delayed for years. They include developmental problems in young children, miscarriages, as well as brain and kidney damage.

Article written by:
Jonathan Lutes
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