Artisanal miners who use mercury to extract gold from soil dug in the mines, risk developing a range of health complications, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The world health body says the complications include permanent damage to the nervous system, in particular the developing nervous system.
And yet at gold mines in Namayingo district, eastern Uganda, mercury is one of the vital possessions every miner wishes to have. The liquid chemical is highly sought after as they apply it during the process to extract gold from soil dug in the mines.
It s a common sight to find men, women and children searching for gold from a mixture of soil, water and mercury, an activity that has become a routine and main income earner in the area. However, while the local miners crave mercury to help them get gold, they are also inviting ill health that could cause death with the same measure.
WHO says that due to the effects, children and women of child-bearing age are considered vulnerable populations because it says mercury can be passed from a mother to her unborn child.
WHO adds that mercury is recognized as a chemical of global concern due to its ability to travel long distances in the atmosphere, its persistence in the environment, its ability to accumulate in ecosystems, including in fish, and its significant negative effect on human health and the environment.
However, while such dangers are mentioned of mercury, there is little knowledge about it among the local miners at the gold mines who openly use the metal during the gold extraction without any protection.
Emmanuel Sikuk, one of the gold miners explained that they use mercury to help separate and collect the bits of gold after it has been sieved from a mixture of soil and water. He however said they were not aware of its dangers, which health experts say develop gradually.
Tito Okware, the LC3 chairman of Buyinja Sub County, where the gold mines are located, says he wants government to help sensitize and regulate usage of mercury in the extractive industry especially among the local miners.
Dr Jacinto Amandwa, the Commissioner of Clinical Services in the Ministry of Health in Uganda, told the Press that there was need to restrict the use of mercury. He said people exposed to mercury risk damaging their vital organs such as kidney, heart and lungs. Amandwa explained that mercury is dangerous because the body is unable to excrete it once it has entered the system. He also mentioned that mercury usage poses threats to the environment and could pollute the water system and food chain.
A Global Mercury Report 2013, by United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has named artisanal and small scale gold mining as the major source for emissions and releases of mercury worldwide. It explains that much of the mercury is released directly into water posing threats to the lives of both humans and animals. The report also says that much human exposure to mercury is through the consumption of fish and other marine products.
In January, an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee agreed to sign a treaty on mercury, which has been named Minamata Convention on Mercury. The new treaty is expected to prevent emissions of mercury. The Committee observed that a boom in the price of gold has led to growth of small scale mining where mercury is used, but said governments would draw strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small scale miners.
Despite such initiatives, mercury usage among local miners continues without regulation. Peter Lokeris, the Minister of State for Minerals, says government is yet to license all the small scale miners as a step towards regulating their activities.