Small gold mines in Senegal create high mercury contamination

phys.org | 2/9/2018 | Staff
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A Duke University-led study has found dangerously high levels of mercury and its more toxic chemical cousin, methylmercury, in soils, sediments and rivers near artisanal gold mines in the West African nation of Senegal.

"Nearly every sample we collected from in and around four mining villages contained mercury concentrations higher than regulatory standards set by the World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," said Jacqueline Gerson, a PhD student in ecology at Duke.

Cases - Level - Contamination - Times - Standards

"In nearly all cases, the level of contamination was more than 10 times higher than these standards, with some cases up to 100 times higher," she said. "This makes them some of the highest levels ever reported at artisanal and small-scale gold mining sites worldwide."

Mercury poisoning can cause a wide range of health impacts, including tremors, muscle weakness, vision and hearing impairments, and loss of coordination and balance. In severe cases, it can lead to birth defects or death.

Artisanal - Gold - Miners - Senegal - Nations

Artisanal gold miners in Senegal and many other developing nations use mercury to separate gold ore from soil and sediments, often with inadequate safeguards to protect themselves or the surrounding environment. This process results in large amounts of mercury being burned off into the atmosphere or spilled into nearby soils and waters.

Scientists previously believed that mercury from these mines is converted into its more toxic form, methylmercury, mostly in aquatic ecosystems. "But our study conclusively shows it is being formed in soil systems, too. It's initially released from mining operations as elemental mercury but once in the soil, it can be converted into methylmercury by microbial activity," Gerson said.

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