On February 23, the Peruvian Environmental Ministry and IAF grantee Center for Research in Environmental Health (CREEH-Peru) hosted a conference on their country’s implementation of the Minamata Convention, an international agreement that aims to eliminate mercury pollution and prevent its adverse effects on the environment and human health. The treaty is named after a Japanese city that suffered devastation due to industrial waste laden with mercury—Peru ratified it last month.
A gold rush sparked by record-setting prices has given rise to an army of small-scale miners who are the main source of mercury pollution in Peru. The precious metal is not normally found in sparkling nuggets as one may commonly imagine; it is embedded in rocks as small particles that are usually separated by combining mercury with the crushed ore, which forms and amalgam that is then boiled until the mercury evaporates and leaves behind gold. Nearly all the mercury turns to vapor that miners and their families inhale. The remainder ends up in rivers and streams. Some 300,000 Peruvian families whose livelihoods depend on artisanal mining, and countless more living as far as hundreds of kilometers downstream, are at risk of developing severe neurological disorders, miscarriages, congenital disease and other maladies. Mercury accumulates on the tissues of organisms and builds up at higher concentrations as it travels up the food chain, endangering entire ecosystems.
CREEH-Peru, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to protect vulnerable communities from environmental contamination, is using its IAF grant to train miners on methods that reduce exposure to mercury. One example separates the gold using borax, a chemical that has been used with no adverse effect for decades and is found in common household items from detergents to cosmetics. The hope is to disseminate methods that replace or responsibly use mercury, so that miners can continue to make a living without harming themselves, their families, neighbors and the environment.