Experts move to stop use of mercury in gold mines

Artisanal miners search for gold in Tiira Village, Tiira  Town Council, Busia District in 2020. Most of these miners use mercury to extract the gold, a substance experts say is harmful to human health and the environment. PHOTO | FILE 

What you need to know:

  • According to experts, mercury is very poisonous and it’s classified as a neurological toxicant, which affects the nervous systems of those who get exposed to it

For a long time, artisanal miners in Busia District have been using mercury to extract gold despite its negative impact on their lives and on the environment.

According to experts, mercury is very poisonous and it’s classified as a neurological toxicant, which affects the nervous systems of those who get exposed to it.

In bid to mitigate the effect, the Uganda National Association of Community and Occupational Health (UNACOH), in partnership with Dialogos, a non-governmental organisation, with funding from the Danish government, have embarked on a campaign to fight against the use of mercury.

During the launch of the campaign in the Tiira mining area on Monday, the experts signed a memorandum of understanding with Busitema University to conduct research, train the miners and introduce new ideas and innovations in the mining sector.

Ms Magrethe Smith of Dialogos, said the miners will be trained to use borax instead of mercury to extract gold.

She said the use of borax has been proven as the most humane and environmentally-friendly method compared to the use of mercury.

“This method [of using borax] has been used in the Philippines for the last 40 years and it’s been proven to be the best method because it does not cause any health issues,” she said.

The National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), in conjunction with UNACOH, carried out a survey between July and August, 2018, in gold mining areas of Busia, Buhweju, Mubende, Namayingo and Karamoja.

Among the findings were that the blood of some miners, especially in Busia District, was contaminated with mercury substances.

Dr Deogracious Kaheeru Ssekimpi, the UNACOH executive director, said mercury causes complications to the brain of the artisanal miners.

“Mercury affects the brain of the human beings and mostly the unborn children,” Dr Ssekimpi, said.

Mr Abubaker Wandera, the national coordinator of Global Environment Facility Small Grant Programme (SGP), said there is a need to empower small-scale miners with advanced technology in order for them to produce quality gold and at high volumes.

“We need to structure mining by supporting miners both at policy, innovation, knowledge and capacity building levels,” he said.

Mr John Odima, a miner, said mercury use has already started to have a negative impact on the mining community.

“There is environmental degradation and the soils and water sources are all contaminated. Our lives are at risk,” he said.

Dr Moses Mugonya, the Mbale City health officer, said mercury has a toxic element that can affect unborn babies.

He added that inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the human nervous, digestive and immune systems.

“Neurological and behavioural disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or exposure to different mercury compounds,” he said.