Small-scale and artisanal gold mining is responsible for releasing the largest amount of mercury into the environment of any sector globally, accounting for over 400 metric tons of airborne elemental mercury released each year. A large portion of the airborne mercury emissions result from the burning of mercury-gold amalgam in small-scale gold buying and refining facilities, referred to as “Gold Shops,” in order to separate gold from ore and sediments. These Gold Shops are located all over the world, and the mercury they release endangers local and global communities exposed to the neurotoxin.
In order to reduce airborne mercury emissions from Gold Shops, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) teamed up with the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) to create the Gold Shop Mercury Capture System (MCS). The MCS is a low cost and easily constructible device used to capture mercury aerosol particles emitted from Gold Shops that process gold-mercury amalgam. This technology was piloted in gold producing regions of Brazil and Peru, and initial performance tests suggest the MCS can reduce airborne mercury emissions in Gold Shops by as much as 80%.
The future of this technology in Gold Shops depends on the promotion of MCS by local governments and communities. Community-based strategies, such as providing business with technical resources and promotional materials, need to be developed in order to ensure implementation.
A technology exists that could significantly reduce airborne mercury emissions, improving the health of hundreds of communities around the world. If promoting the Mercury Capture System globally and locally is what it takes to increase the implementation of this technology world-wide, then let’s spread the word!
Illegal mining in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest is having a severe impact on the environment. According to Juan José Córdova, leader of the energy sector at KPMG Peru, “it is estimated that 30 to 40 [metric] tons of mercury are dumped into the environment annually and burned off after amalgamation- generally without even using rudimentary technology to protect workers’ health or capture waste or fumes.”