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Reducing Mercury Pollution
from Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

 

Tools to Reduce Mercury
from Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

About 20% of the world's gold is produced by the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector. This sector is also responsible for the largest releases of mercury to the environment of any sector globally. A major source of air pollution from mercury, artisanal and small-scale gold mining releases approximately 400 metric tons of airborne elemental mercury each year.

Located in over 55 countries, small scale gold buying and refining facilities (commonly referred to as “Gold Shops”) are an important part of this production process, and are a major cause of air pollution from mercury.

The burning of mercury-gold amalgam in these Gold Shops can have serious health effects both locally and globally. For more information on mercury's health effects, please see the EPA Mercury Portal.

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EPA/ANL Mercury Capture System installed in a gold shop in Huepetue, state of Medre de Dios. (R-L): David Cuadros (Peru Ministry of Energy and Mines), Ricardo Morales (Peru Ministry of Energy and Mines), Luis Fernandez (Argonne National Laboratory)

To reduce airborne mercury emissions from these Gold Shops, EPA and the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) have partnered to design a low cost, easily constructible technology called the Gold Shop Mercury Capture System (MCS). The MCS was piloted and tested in Amazonian gold producing regions in Brazil and Peru.

Building on a pilot project and workshop held in September 2008, Peru has developed a strategy for the national implementation of this new technology, including:

Performance tests indicate the MCS technology can reduce airborne mercury emissions in gold shops by 80 percent, a significant reduction in regions that typically do not have access to any form of effective mercury control technology.

Data collected during site visits in Peru, to Puerto Maldonado, Masuko, and Huepetue in the Amazon, and La Rinconada and Ananea in the high Andes, showed that in shops with the installed MCS technology, mercury vapor concentrations were close to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists threshold limit value (ACGIH TLV) for occupational exposure (25 ug/m3). Gold shops that did not have the MCS technology installed had mean ambient mercury vapor concentrations that were five to 20 times higher than those shops that had the mercury control system installed.

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Environmental mercury vapor monitoring: La Rinconada, Puno (Peru)

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EPA and ANL scientists used Jerome and other Mercury Vapor Analyzers to measure the concentration of airborne mercury released by gold shops located over 17,000 feet above sea level.  

The town of La Rinconada (pop: 35,000) in the Andes is one of the highest cities in the world, at 17,020 feet above sea level, and is one of the most productive artisanal gold mining sites in Peru. All of the gold is produced through mercury amalgamation, with open mercury use.

There are an estimated 120 gold shops in La Rinconada. Average mercury vapor concentrations in open areas (such as the central marketplace) approach the ACGIH TLV for occupational exposure (25 ug/m3). Measurements inside the gold shops were also significantly above the ACGIH TLV.

During a visit to La Rinconada, data was collected to assess efficiency of the MCS technology in low temperature and high altitude settings so that this technology can improve air quality in La Rinconada.

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Artisanal gold miners in Mali, who use mercury for gold amalgamation. The bags at bottom left are full of mercury.

A Global Opportunity

Expanding beyond the Amazon and the Andes, EPA's work represents a significant potential for reductions of mercury emissions worldwide. As one step in our efforts to pursue this, an Action Planning Workshop on reducing mercury use and emissions in artisanal gold mining took place in Bamako, Mali, December 8-10.

The workshop responded to the UNEP Governing Councils February 2009 decision, which calls for immediate action to address the severe health and environmental effects of mercury use in artisanal gold mining. Participants included 43 representatives from governments and stakeholders from throughout francophone West Africa. Initial EPA funding for this workshop catalyzed contributions from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Government of Finland, under the auspices of the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership.

At the workshop, participants drafted national action plans for mercury reduction in the sector. A presentation on the MCS technology was well received. Over the next several months, countries will be refining their national action plans and beginning implementation to achieve real reductions in mercury exposures in the mining communities.

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Back to: International Actions for Reducing Mercury Emissions and Use


Contacts

For additional information on EPA's work with mercury, contact:

Marianne Bailey
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2670R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460
E-mail: bailey.marianne@epa.gov
(202) 564-6402

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