TOS forum, Issue 7, p. 30 (2017)

Barefoot sampling in San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua: remediation of mercury pollution from small scale gold mining tailings

Kim H. Esbensena and Peter W.U. Appelb
aResearch Professor GEUS (Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Copenhagen) and KHE Consulting, Denmark (since August 2015). www.kheconsult.com
bAppel Global, Copenhagen, Denmark. www.appel.global.com

The increasing population on planet Earth has many impacts—one is a strong influence on the amount of mercury released to the environment. Burning of coal in power plants, particularly in China, has tripled several times during the last century and so has the use of coal for cooking for the ever-increasing population of India and elsewhere. These sources account for the second largest release of mercury to the environment. But the worst sinner is the rapidly increasing number of small-scale gold miners in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, who presently provide food on the table for 10s of millions of households. Small-scale gold miners use vast amounts of mercury for capturing the gold and much of this mercury is released directly to the environment. A large part evaporates to the atmosphere and the rest is transported downstream in rivers ending up in the oceans. The amount of mercury released is phenomenal, an estimated 3000 tons of mercury is released annually by small-scale gold miners alone. A vast proportion enters the food chain in fish and sea mammals, as well as in rice polluted by spillage waters which enters irrigation pathways. Human consumption of polluted fish and/or rice already today has a very severe impact on human health, and this will have even more severe consequences if the current situation is not changed radically. It is of particular concern if mercury-intoxicated women become pregnant because the foetus extracts mercury from the mother. The human foetus is much more sensitive to mercury intoxication and thus has a high risk of being born with brain damage as well as physical disabilities. Over time this will cause reduced intelligence for exposed children in the next generation. This grim outlook has prompted a group of concerned researchers to teach small-scale gold miners to work without the use of mercury and simultaneously to find ways to clean mercury-polluted gold mining tailings, which are one of the main polluting agents. Here we report on one specific part of this endeavour where the Theory of Sampling (TOS) was needed in order to secure reliable estimates of gold and mercury contents in dispersed mining tailings.

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