Walter Nyamukondiwa in Kadoma
Some artisanal miners across the country are reportedly exposing themselves and their family members to mercury poisoning through inhaling vapour and smoke during gold processing.
Reports say at times the panners also swallow gold nuggets laced with mercury to evade the police.
Most of the panners prefer handling the mercury without protective clothing for fear of losing some gold particles.
Mercury poisoning occurs through inhaling or coming into contact with vapour and ingestion, which can lead to headaches, loss of coordination, visual impairment and reduced ability to think, among other symptoms.
High exposure to mercury can lead to respiratory complications, kidney malfunction and death.
Medical experts say studies in the mood and emotional altering effects of mercury could solve the conundrum of high incidents of violence among some artisanal miners.
Some of the symptoms of mercury poisoning include mood swings, irritability and nervousness.
Our Harare Bureau visited some artisanal mining hubs in Kadoma, Chakari, Patchway in Sanyati district and Chikuti in Makonde district where the use of mercury is rampant.
Interviews with artisanal miners in the mining hubs indicate that some miners and middle-level gold buyers now suffer loss of sight, memory and weight, while others have uncontrolled movement of muscles due to damage to the nervous system.
There are also fears of a correlation between mercury exposure and poor results in local schools.
Recently, there were reports of over 150 tonnes of mercury being smuggled into the country, most of which ends up in the hands of artisanal miners.
The far reaching consequences of mishandling mercury have resulted in some of it being discharged in rivers where people unrelated to mining are being exposed through eating contaminated fish.
Kadoma residents complained of the poor metallic taste of the fish found in Claw Dam, which opens another avenue of contamination in humans.
Said resident Mr Jairos Muza: “The fish here in Kadoma tastes so bad that you have to fry it thoroughly to at least enjoy your meal. The fish here does not have the same taste with fish from other areas.
“Frying the mercury contaminated fish means the liquid turns into vapour and is inhaled by people inside the house, thereby starting the processs of accumulation of the heavy metal in the body.”
“Artisanal miners said they swallow the heavy metal as an insurance policy against theft and being duped in the cut-throat gold trade.”
The miners have emerged as the most exposed to mercury poisoning, as they are directly involved in at least two stages where mercury is burnt.
At least 1,5 million people depend on mining for livelihood.
“Mercury is something we have grown used to in our trade, but we do not know the dangers it poses,” said Mr Job Banda of Village 5 in Chikuti.
“We even swallow the amalgam, a combination of the gold and mercury when you realise that someone wants to dupe you or when the gold output at the mill is not satisfactory.”
The swallowing of mercury and gold amalgam by the miners was corroborated by Mr Lingo Ndwamba at Patchway, who said the practice was done especially when one was confronted by the police.
Asked how the amalgam would be recovered, the artisanal miners said it was released almost immediately from the body owing to the density of mercury.
“It does not even take seconds for the mercury to come out and you can actually feel it rolling down your pants,” said Mr Ndwamba.
Medical experts say this results in the mercury dissolving internal tissue or it gets absorbed and spread to other organs. Buyers who get gold from the artisanal miners for onward resell are also exposed, as they have to burn off the mercury to purify the gold or authenticate it.
This is usually done in enclosed rooms, away from the prying eyes of the police and robbers.
Most women and children find themselves exposed in this way as they become passive inhalers of the resultant smoke and mercury vapour.
Studies show high levels of mercury in lactating mothers, exposing their children to mercury poisoning during breastfeeding, while mild toxicity in pregnant women impairs brain development of the unborn child.
Mashonaland West provincial medical director Dr Wenceslas Nyamayaro said due to limited information on the dangers of mercury and poor health consciousness by artisanal miners, most would die without knowing the cause.
Artisanal miners have blamed mill owners for not adopting safe gold processing systems like the use of the James Table and hammer mills as opposed to the stamp mill.
Use of the James Table would lead to recovery of about 90 percent of gold, compared to around 50 percent when using mercury.
This, the artisanal miners contended, was driven by greed as the millers would further process the remaining by-product and recover more gold.
“It is selfishness on the part of mill owners who want to continue with the current means of processing gold so that they charge us for using their mill and go on to get gold after reprocessing our ore,” Mr Misheck Muchenje of Patchway said.
A mill owner Mr Lovemore Mlilo, said newer and safer machinery which does not rely heavily on mercury was expensive, before calling on Government to help in mechanising the industry.
Artisanal miners representative, Mr Evans Ruzvidzo, said there was a need for investment in awareness programmes to protect artisanal miners.
“We once carried out awareness programmes and demonstrations on safe ways of handling mercury around 2004 and that helped, but more people are into artisanal mining which calls for the intensification of the programme,” he said.
Taking the gold to Fidelity Printers and Refiners is a legal minefield requiring a plethora of licences which scare away artisanal miners and they thus resort to the unorthodox means.
The miners said there was a need for softening of requirements for them to regularise their operations, so that they could take their gold to Fidelity Printers and Refiners.
Owing to the high risk, artisanal miners have adopted unorthodox coping means, which have dreadful health consequences.
After crushing of gold ore, mercury is added to isolate it from other metals.
This is done by burning the combination using a smouldering log so that the mercury, together with other impurities, are burnt, leaving behind the gold because of its incombustible nature.
The mercury and impurities turn into vapour and smoke, which is then released into the atmosphere and inhaled at source.
More than 150 tonnes of mercury is illegally finding its way into the country against 50 tonnes imported through legal means.
So perverse has been the supply of mercury that it can be sold even in hair saloons, with a teaspoon going for $5 in areas such as Kadoma.
Previously, the same amount would cost $15 and is mostly available from gold millers.
Kadoma has about 120 mills, while Makonde has 21.
Mining companies operating legally are accused of discharging mercury and cyanide into water bodies, resulting in loss of livestock.
Cattle favour cyanide contaminated water to natural water owing to the salty taste.
Cyanide overflow contaminated Angwa River in Chikuti recently, resulting in death of fish and cattle.
People in the area said they scrambled for the fish which they consumed, exposing themselves to more danger.
“We no longer have fish in this part of Angwa River because they died about two years ago due to cyanide poisoning,” said Mr Shepard Mupukuta.
Officials from the Ministry of Health and Child Care said there were no ready statistics on the number of people affected by mercury, since it was difficult to detect.
Principal director in the ministry responsible for preventative services Dr Gibson Mhlanga said: “Institutions could have that information, but we do not routinely get the statistics from the institutions since it’s not a common condition”.