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The Toxic Truth: Smugglers and Governments Fuelling Illegal Mercury Trade

by Dr. Fanny Yuen Americas Mar 6th 20234 mins
The Toxic Truth: Smugglers and Governments Fuelling Illegal Mercury Trade

Small-scale gold mining in South America is facing a risk of collapse as the prohibition of mercury – a highly toxic metal – is threatening the industry. Despite the ban, both the legal and illegal trade of mercury are thriving, resulting in complex and multifaceted issues with devastating health and environmental impacts. Collaborative efforts are needed to prioritise sustainable and ethical practices to address the illegal mercury trade.

Why Is Mercury Dangerous?

Mercury can affect the neurological and nervous systems. The World Health Organisation reports that mercury exposure can cause tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches, and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Prolonged exposure can lead to irreversible neurological damage. The toxic metal can also contaminate the environment, and mercury pollution can lead to poisoning in humans and wildlife that eat contaminated fish. Smugglers continue to transport mercury from Guyana to neighbouring countries, despite the risks to human health and the environment. 

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Mercury Trade in South America

Mercury has long been used in small-scale gold mining throughout South America due to its ability to bind with flecks of gold and form an amalgam that simplifies collection. However, increasing scrutiny of the metal’s health and environmental impact is leading to its prohibition throughout the continent. Unfortunately, this puts economies that rely on gold mining at risk of collapse, and smugglers are taking advantage of the situation. 

One of the last countries legally importing mercury is Guyana, making it a nexus for smuggling mercury into neighbouring countries. 20,000 kilogrammes of mercury are legally imported into Guyana’s capital Georgetown every year from the US, the UK, Russia, and other countries. Increasingly, large quantities are also being imported on the black market, representing a multi-million dollar industry of both legal and illicit trade in mercury. 

In the centre of Georgetown, dozens of gold shops and mining supply stores divide up and sell mercury under the table in small quantities. From there, mini-buses and charter planes distribute the mercury to small-time buyers of gold mines throughout the interior of Guyana and traffic it to neighbouring countries where it is sold at ten times the price. Talking about mercury is taboo for most traders who lack the paperwork to legally move the liquid metal.

Mahdia is a historic gold-producing centre in Guyana’s interior surrounded by mines scattered throughout the lush forests. There, miners go into cold water early in the morning, sometime around 5 a.m., to start pumping water. From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, they use silver mercury to drop it on the sheet, then they put the silver into the pond or trouble, and the silver still runs. Without the silver, they cannot catch any gold. Mercury binds with flecks of gold to form an amalgam that’s easier to collect. Without it, miners would go home empty-handed. 

The bustling commerce of Mahdia embodies the free spirit of the Guyanese interior, where gold fever has a firm grip on the people. 

Buyers and jewellers in Mahdia burn off excess mercury from fresh mine gold, turning a shapeless mass into refined bars, all the while exposing themselves to an invisible danger. Smelting or dealing with a lot of mercury requires suiting up and gearing up, but not everyone takes these precautions.

Can We Stop Illegal Mercury Trade?

The Guyanese government ratified an international treaty in 2014 aimed at reducing mercury, known as the Minamata Convention, which requires them to phase out its use, putting miners who rely on mercury at odds with the government. If the prohibition of mercury goes into effect, it will have significant implications for the livelihoods of miners and communities across the Amazon.

The prohibition of mercury would certainly be a significant blow to the economies that rely on gold mining in South America. However, there are alternative, less harmful methods of mining that could be implemented. The long-term benefits of transitioning to these methods would far outweigh the short-term economic costs. Governments in the region need to take a stand and prioritise the health and well-being of their citizens over short-term economic gains.

The smugglers and black-market traders are not the only ones to blame for the continued use of mercury. The consumers who buy gold without considering its source also bear responsibility. It is important to be aware of the supply chains behind the products we buy and to support sustainable and ethical practices.

The situation in Guyana and the surrounding countries is complex and multifaceted. It is clear that the use of mercury in gold mining needs to end, but it is also important to consider the livelihoods of the miners and the economic impact of the prohibition. Solutions will require a collaborative effort from governments, miners, and consumers.

As the world becomes more interconnected, issues like mercury use in small-scale gold mining in South America become increasingly relevant to us all. It is important to educate ourselves and support sustainable practices that prioritise the health and well-being of people and the environment. The path to a better future begins with awareness, education, and action.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

Dr. Fanny Yuen

Fanny has a PhD in Biotechnology and deep experience in Nanotechnology, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Process Scale-up. As the Process Technical Leader for billion-dollar FMCG brands, she has been instrumental in the launch of 200+ new innovative products. Her entrepreneurial ventures include cofounding startups in biotech, cosmeceuticals, and social platforms, with her latest venture being SupraCool Cooling Fabrics (SupraCool.com). As a passionate advocate for sustainable science, Fanny also cofounded Green Your Lab (GreenYourLab.org), a global initiative that promotes eco-friendly practices in the scientific community. In her off-hours, you will find her volunteering at the local soup kitchen, organising activities for refugees, traveling, or trying to learn a new skill.

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