Gold has been sought after and treasured since ancient times and represents to many wealth and status. Jewelry accounts for approximately 70 percent of the gold demand and wearing gold is considered by many to enhance a woman’s appearance.
The World Gold Council is an association of the world’s leading gold producers established to promote the use of gold. They state in their report A Passion for Gold – Realizing Potential in the Gold Market, “Gold jewelry is perceived to be an integral part of a woman’s appearance. Our research showed that gold jewelry is considered by the majority of the consumer segments to be a necessary item rather than just an accessory – women derive strong emotional benefits from wearing gold jewelry, it is believed to complete a woman’s appearance.”
Gold jewelry is also extremely profitable amounting to over $44 billion dollars in 2006 making gold jewelry one of the world’s largest categories of consumer goods. In terms of retail value the United States is the largest market for gold jewelry, whereas India is the largest consumer in volume terms. The demand for gold has driven the price from $260 per ounce in 2001 to $725 per ounce in 2006.
This demand for gold has fostered a gold rush and increasingly impoverished people in developing countries have turned to small scale gold mining to earn a living. The choice of these miners to extract gold because it is easy, effective, and generally cheap is quicksilver also known as mercury.
The May 2007 issue of Chemical & Engineering News examines the practice of using mercury to extract gold and its impact on the environment.
An estimated 10 to 15 million small-scale miners rely on mercury to separate grains of gold from small bits of sand and rock using pans or other small scale equipment. The technique results in a gold-mercury amalgam which is later heated to release the mercury and extract the gold.
According to Michael T. Bender, executive director of the Mercury Policy Project, a group promoting the elimination, reduced use, exposure to, and trade of mercury stated that “up to half of these miners have symptoms of mercury poisoning.”
International aid agencies and other charitable groups are working with small-scale gold miners to promote techniques that are not mercury based, but the use of mercury is more widespread than these efforts. According to a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report on mercury, “In most countries mercury is readily available and relatively inexpensive to miners. In some cases, it is given for free, contingent on the recovered gold being sold to the mercury provider.”
The largely unregulated flow of mercury is polluting waterways, land, and the miners themselves throughout Africa, South America, and Asia. Because the miners heat the gold-mercury amalgam in open pans elemental mercury is released into the atmosphere. UNEP estimates that “small-scale gold mining releases between 650 and 1,000 metric tons of mercury per year,” and that this pollution accounts for “about a third of all mercury releases to the environment from human activities.”
While mercury demand is soaring in the rest of the world according the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mercury use in the United States has declined from over 2,000 metric tons per year in 1980 to just under 300 metric tons in 2001. Eight chlor-alkali chemical plants in the United States that currently hold over 2,300 metric tons of mercury are expected to be shut down or converted to processes that don’t use mercury. Because of the high demand for mercury to extract gold, that mercury is currently worth approximately $45 million on the world market.
According the UNEP, “If mercury from closed or converted chlor-alkali plants reaches the international market, it probably ends up in the developing world and in small-scale gold mining operations.”
The demand for gold may drive tons of mercury now housed in eight United States chemical plants into the hands of poverty-stricken people in developing countries to extract that gold to meet that demand. That will result in still more toxic mercury being released into the environment polluting the rivers, the air, and the people.
Source: Chemical & Engineering News, May 28, 2007, Vol. 85, No. 22, pp. 26-29