Public Health Strategies Needed in Treaty to Address Toxic Threat
(Punta del Este, Uruguay) – Negotiations for an international treaty to limit the use of mercury should seek to protect the health rights of artisanal gold mining communities, Human Rights Watch said today, in advance of a new round of meetings on the treaty in Uruguay. The meetings are scheduled for June 27 to July 2, 2012, under the purview of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Governments plan to adopt the treaty in late 2013.
“Mercury is highly toxic, and millions of adult and child artisanal gold miners around the world are exposed every day,” said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This treaty is critically important to reducing mercury-related conditions, disability, and death. If governments are serious about protecting vulnerable populations from mercury, they need to ban the use of mercury by children, and take concrete steps to prevent and treat mercury poisoning among all artisanal miners.”
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining – gold mining without industrial equipment – is one of the largest sectors for mercury use globally. At least 13 million people worldwide, including children, work in artisanal gold mining and use mercury to extract gold from the ore. Human Rights Watch research in Mali has revealed that children as young as 6 work with mercury on a regular basis, with little or no knowledge of its health effects.
Mercury attacks the central nervous system, causing tremors and twitching, memory loss, brain damage, or other neurological and behavioral disorders. It can also damage the kidneys and the lungs. Mercury is particularly harmful to children and can cause developmental problems and irreversible brain damage. Under international human rights law, work with hazardous substances and processes is classified among the worst forms of child labor.
Several governments, including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States favor voluntary action plans for artisanal gold mining. It is envisaged under the treaty that mandatory action plans would be funded by a donor-supported financial mechanism, but voluntary action plans would not.
“It is shocking that some governments propose only voluntary, not mandatory, action plans to prevent mercury exposure among artisanal mining communities,” Kippenberg said. “The new mercury treaty needs to require mandatory, detailed action plans on artisanal gold mining to reduce mercury use and address its harmful effects.”
There are currently no simple alternatives to the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining, but its quantities can be greatly reduced and its effects much better controlled. Action plans should include steps to introduce retorts – containers that capture the mercury vapor – and to develop mercury-free technologies, Human Rights Watch said.
The treaty negotiations are largely centered on environmental measures rather than on public health measures. The draft treaty focuses on reducing mercury exposure in a range of areas, such as supply and trade, products and processes, artisanal gold mining, emissions and releases, and waste and storage.
Human Rights Watch called for the treaty to also include requirements for strong public health measures for all populations – not just miners – to ensure that national health systems are equipped to provide education on mercury prevention as well as treatment for people who have been exposed.
“As the draft stands now, even though the treaty is aimed at protecting public health, it hardly proposes any public health measures,” Kippenberg said. “The current draft has nothing to offer to those who are already suffering from mercury poisoning, and very little in the way of prevention.”
Human Rights Watch urged governments to advocate stronger public health language in the treaty to protect the right to health. The organization said that an initiative by Latin American governments to strengthen health language was a positive move.
Delegates at the Uruguay negotiations should press to include the following elements in the treaty, Human Rights Watch said:
- A ban on mercury use by children and strategies to put the ban into practice;
- Strategies to limit the use of mercury by women of childbearing age, especially women who are pregnant or breastfeeding;
- Public health measures to prevent mercury exposure and to address the health effects of mercury on artisanal gold mining communities; and
- Measures to reduce mercury use and emissions in artisanal gold mining, including the introduction of retorts and mercury-free technologies.
Accounts From Artisanal Mining Communities
“We have dozens of cases of mercury poisoning. They [the patients] become drowsy. They are out of touch. They stare blankly at the wall. You cannot talk to them; they are not conversant, nothing. They are like zombies. And we have several cases that did not recover.”
-Dr. Moises Granada, chief doctor at Paiam Hospital who regularly treats artisanal gold miners, Paiam, Papua New Guinea, November 2010
“Once the ore is panned, you put a bit of mercury in. You rub the ore and the mercury with your two hands. Then, when the mercury has attracted the gold, you put it on a metal box and burn it. When I have finished, I sell the gold to a trader. I do this daily.… I know mercury is dangerous, but I don’t know how. I do not protect myself.”
-11-year-old girl, Worognan, Kolondiéba cercle, Mali, April 2011
“I work at the mining site. I look after the other children and I carry minerals. .… I [also] work with mercury. You mix it in a cup and put it on the fire. I do this at the site.… I would like to leave this work.”
-Boy, estimated age 6, Baroya, Kayes region, Mali, April 2011