When I visited the small-scale — or “galamsey”—gold mines in the Ashanti Region earlier this year, I met  “Kwame,” a quiet but self-assured 12-year-old. He dropped out of primary school about a year ago to help his mother feed his five younger siblings.

When we met in his village, Kwame was spending his days carrying, crushing and washing ore. As he described his work to me, he put his hands in his trousers’ pocket and pulled out a small flask filled with a silvery liquid — mercury. He explained: “I use the hand to spread the mercury. Then I create the amalgam. I burn it on my own wherever I get fire, at my mother’s house or anywhere.”

What Kwame (not his real name) did not know is that he was inhaling toxic mercury fumes when he burned the gold-mercury amalgam, risking brain damage and other irreversible harm to his health from mercury poisoning.

Mercury attacks the central nervous system and causes serious, lifelong health conditions, including brain, kidney and heart malfunctions; in high doses, it can kill. And it is particularly harmful to children.

Small-scale gold miners

Ghana has an estimated one million small-scale gold miners, and they commonly use mercury to process gold. They mix the mercury with the ore to create a gold-mercury amalgam, and then burn the mercury off so the raw gold remains. These million miners include thousands of children who are exposed to the toxic effects of mercury during “galamsey” mining.

My colleagues and I interviewed 24 children in Ghana who faced chronic exposure to mercury through mining work; the youngest was nine. These young children bear the brunt of mercury’s deadly impacts because their developing bodies make them particularly vulnerable.

We also interviewed an 18-year-old pregnant girl who was working with mercury, unaware that the foetus was highly vulnerable to mercury exposure, and that the result could be a lifelong disability. And then, we spoke with a 19-year-old who had worked with mercury for two years and was already experiencing hand tremors, a classic sign of mercury poisoning.

Unlike some other West African countries, Ghana allows mercury use in mining. Mercury is freely available in shops and can be bought with a canister, bottle, or as a ball wrapped in a plastic cling film. Much of it has been brought in by Chinese miners, a government source told me. Ghana even appears to be an entry point for mercury into the West African region, trading some to Burkina Faso and other West African mining countries.

The problems stemming from mercury use don’t stop at exposure from inhalation. Once used for gold processing, mercury-contaminated water is often dumped on the ground, polluting Ghana’s rivers and lakes, and poisoning its fish and those who eat them.

What can be done to protect people from this toxic substance?

This week, the government of Ghana took an important step towards addressing the threat of mercury. Ghana signed a new international treaty designed to reduce mercury exposure globally, joining 102 countries that had signed.

The treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, was adopted on October 10, 2013, in Japan, near the fishing town that gave the treaty its name. In Minamata, half a century ago, at least 1,700 people died and many more suffered lifelong disability after eating fish contaminated with mercury when a factory polluted the ocean.

Signing the treaty was a good first step. Now, Ghana should take the next steps. Parliament needs to ratify the convention, and — perhaps even more important — the government should immediately start doing what the convention requires it to do to protect the health of its citizens.

Under the treaty, Ghana is obliged to reduce mercury use in small-scale gold mining, promote mercury-free methods, and control the trade in mercury. It also has to eliminate harmful mercury practices, such as burning amalgam in the home, as  Kwame does. Ghana needs to train healthcare workers on the effects of mercury. And it needs to prevent the exposure of children and pregnant women.

National action plan

Finally, Ghana should work towards formalising, and hence professionalising the small-scale gold mining sector. To do all these, Ghana is required to create a national action plan on the reduction of mercury in mining, best developed by bringing together  the government, independent groups and businesses. This is hard work, but it can be done. There are mercury-free gold processing methods, such as the gravity method or direct smelting. And there are funds available under the convention to support governments that want to act but lack resources.

The road ahead is steep, but Ghana needs to take it. Ghana owes it to all those working in gold mining, including Kwame and other children.