Gold miners told to keep off ‘toxic’ mercury

Gold miners mix crashed ore with water containing mercury at a gold mine in Lolgorian, Narok County on October ‎5. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]
Gold miners in western Kenya have been asked not to use mercury in extracting the mineral.

Instead, the national government wants the miners in Western and Nyanza, most of who are small-scale drillers, to use borax.

Borax is a white crystalline compound consisting of a hydrated sodium borate that occurs as a mineral or is prepared from other minerals. Borax is used, especially as a flux (a substance used to promote fusion, as of metals or minerals), as a cleansing agent and water softener. Borax is also used as a preservative and as a fireproofing agent.

The Government is currently sensitising the miners on the dangers of mercury to their health.

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Extracting gold

Experts say mercury is harmful to health and recommend use of borax in extracting gold.

Borax is also used in soap making. It is readily available and affordable compared to mercury.

Majority of small-scale gold miners use mercury amalgam to speed up the process of extracting gold from its ore.

The Ministry of Petroleum has launched a countrywide programme to sensitise over 250,000 artisan gold miners to embrace the new technology, especially in gold mining.

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The move is in line with the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) project dubbed; ‘Global Opportunities for Long-term Development of Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Project’, aimed at devising mercury-free and environmentally-friendly methods of extracting gold.

Kenya is among the eight countries that will benefit from the programme, Unep has sponsored at the cost of Sh2.17 billion, to encourage gold miners to start using borax instead of mercury.

Irreparable damage

The ministry has started conducting trials for the new technology in the gold mining areas in Kakamega County.

Other gold mining areas are in Homa Bay, Nandi, Migori, Siaya, Narok, Turkana, West Pokot and Vihiga counties.

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Records from the ministry show Kakamega has at least 1.31 million ounces of gold deposits along the Liranda Corridor which is valued at Sh171 billion.

Liranda Corridor stretches from Shinyalu to Ikolomani sub-counties. Part of it is also in Vihiga County with over 50,000 people living along the corridor.

The ministry has also partnered with Strathmore University Extraction Industry Centre (SEIC), Kipya Africa Limited and Kakamega Environmental Conservation and Beautification Organisation (Kecbo) in the trials.

John Lugalia, the Western regional geologist, said they launched the exercise after it emerged that continued use of mercury in extracting gold had caused irreparable damage to the health of some of the people living around the mining sites.

Mr Lugalia, who spoke yesterday at Burendwa Secondary School in Ikolomani, said hundreds of people were suffering from mercury poisoning.

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Health risks

“Artisan gold miners expose themselves to grave health risks since they don’t have safety gears such as ear plugs, safety glasses, masks, gloves and gumboots when extracting gold. They also use bare hands in handling mercury which in the long run makes them lose their fingernails,” said Lugalia.

He added: “If a pregnant woman comes into contact with high levels of mercury, it can cause real problems for her and her baby.”

Kakamega County artisan miners’ chairman Timothy Mukoshi said mercury has had adverse effects on their members. This year alone, he said, they have buried at least three gold miners who, after autopsy, were found to have high levels of mercury in their blood.

He said some had seizures, kidney failure and memory loss whereas pregnant women, who worked in the gold mines, lost their pregnancies or their babies died after birth. “Mercury had damaged their nervous system while others had deformities,” said Mr Mukoshi yesterday.

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MiningGold minersmercury poisoning