Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo courtesy of GEF
The use of highly toxic mercury in mining will soon be eliminated in compliance with the Minamata Convention that protects the environment and human health, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
In a press statement released to the media, it has been shown that mercury emissions coming from mining reaches 1,000 tons annually. In 2013, the Philippines was one of the 128 countries that signed the convention, which regulates the use and trade of mercury.
Because of this, the environment department is implementing a program that establishes national policies ensuring the elimination of mercury’s use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM).
“The ASGM sector exposes miners to toxic mercury when they use the chemical to extract gold from ore,” states the Global Environment Facility (GEF). “However, with the right policies and market incentives, AASGM presents an opportunity to fight mercury use and contamination, protecting miners’ health and the environment at the same time.”
The Philippines is one of the countries receiving funding from GEF with the United Nations Development Program. The program is called the “Global Opportunities for Long-term Development of Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Sector” project.
The Philippines will receive a grant amounting to P585 until 2024. As a counterpart fund, the Philippines will also complement the grant with P96 million.
“The project will help small miners shift to legal mining that uses mercury-free technology,” the environment department explained. “It will empower small miners and help raise their income and livelihood by producing higher value-added products such as jewelry from mere raw gold ore.
“Meaningful economic incentives as well as adequate community development strategies are needed to fully aid mining communities with their formalization efforts,” the DENR added.
The country’s ASGM sector takes up a critical role in the economy, directly employing 500,000 small-scale miners and indirectly providing livelihood to two million Filipinos.
Most operators (78) of the ASGM sector are located in the Cordillera Administrative Region, while 38 ASGM are doing business in the Caraga Region. “While mostly operating illegally, the ASGM sector accounts for 70% of the country’s gold production,” the DENR said in its press release. “The Philippines itself is one of the world’s top 20 gold producers.”
The environment department said the sites for the GEF-funded project are Mountain Province and Camarines Norte.
The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) considers mercury “one of the top ten threats to public health.”
A naturally occurring element in the Earth’s crust, mercury is one of the world’s most toxic metals. It is released into the atmosphere with natural events such as volcanic activity.
Science books state there are two types of mercury: inorganic and organic. Metallic mercury, which is a type of inorganic mercury, is used in familiar items such as fluorescent lights, batteries, and thermometers.
Methyl mercury is a type of organic mercury. Scientists say this white powdery substance “smells like the sulfur in a hot spring.” It is easily absorbed from the stomach into the blood and carried to the liver and kidney, and then the brain and even the fetus, where it is absorbed and concentrated and causes great damage to the human body.
“Human activities like coal burning, gold mining and chloralkali manufacturing plants currently contribute the vast majority of the mercury released into our environment,” explained Dr. Anne M. Davis, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics director at the Didactic Program in Dietetics of the University of New Haven.
In an article which Live Science published, author Alina Bradford wrote: “When mercury is released into the atmosphere, it dissolves in fresh water and seawater. A type of mercury called methylmercury is most easily accumulated in the body and is particularly dangerous.”
A paper published by the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health said that about 80%-90% of organic mercury in a human body comes from eating fish and shellfish, and 75%-90% of organic mercury existing in fish and shellfish is methylmercury.
Mercury has long been known to be toxic; the phrase “mad as a hatter” refers to the 19th-century occupational disease that resulted from prolonged contact with the mercury used in the manufacture of felt hats. Despite this, there are still workers, especially laboratory technicians, nurses, and machine operators, who are still exposed to mercury as it is part of their job.
Mercury poisoning is its biggest health threat. And it is almost always associated with Minamata disease. It is named after a port city in southeastern Kyushu in Japan. It was first reported in 1953 when 13 persons were suffering from what was then a strange malady.
A historical narrative for Michiko Ishimure, who won the 1973 Ramon Magsaysay Award for publicizing writings about the Minamata disease, shared this information: “(The strange malady) usually manifested itself first in numbness and a ‘drunken’ loss of coordination, which progressively led to a total loss of the ability to walk, speak, write, see, hear, smell and feel. In its later stages, it resulted in severe deformation of the body, convulsions, fantastic behavior and death.”
Records show that some early severe victims of the unknown disease went insane, became unconscious, and died within a month of the onset of the disease. In addition to the physical damage, there was also social harm, such as discrimination due to the disease.
By 1956, some 52 persons were known sufferers, and by 1958, the Minamata City Hospital had to add a wing to accommodate the patients. It was not until in July 1959 that Japanese medical experts identified mercury as the cause of what became officially known as Minamata Disease.
In 1965, Minamata disease was again reported in Niigata, on the East Coast of Honshu. Again, scientists made public their definite conclusion: the disease was from mercury emptied into the river.
“Although mercury poisoning is not that common, it is a serious condition that can lead to complications,” says Dr. Willie T. Ong, an internist, and cardiologist, who is currently running for the Senate this coming May election.
“Adults with mercury poisoning may develop muscle weakness, tremors, impaired speech, difficulty walking, headaches, insomnia, irritability, and skin rashes,” he says, adding that people with severe exposure to mercury, the effects can escalate to kidney disease, respiratory failure, and even death.
The US National Institutes of Health said that mercury poisoning is a slow process that can take months of years. Since the process is so slow, most people don’t realize they are being poisoned right away.
“The populations most vulnerable to mercury are pregnant women (because it affects fetuses) and small children,” wrote Linda Greer, Michael Bender, Peter Maxson, and David Lennett, authors of Curtailing Mercury’s Global Reach, one of the reports included in the “State of The World” published by Worldwatch Institute.
“A child’s brain develops throughout the first several years of life, and mercury interferes with development of the neuron connections in the brain crucial to a healthy nervous system. High levels of prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, or blindness,” the four authors noted.
Even in much lower doses, mercury exposure is still dangerous. “(It) may affect a child’s development, leading to such results as poor performance on neurobehavioral tests, particularly those relying on attention, fine motor function, language, visual spatial abilities (such as drawing), and verbal memory,” the four authors pointed out.
Although it travels through the atmosphere, mercury settles in oceans and waterways, where naturally occurring bacteria absorb it and convert it to methylmercury. Here’s what happened, according to Bradford:
“Once in the water, mercury makes its way into the food chain. Inorganic mercury and methylmercury are first consumed by phytoplankton, single-celled algae at the base of most aquatic food chains. Next, the phytoplankton are consumed by small animals such as zooplankton. The methylmercury is assimilated and retained by the animals as waste products. Small fish that eat the zooplankton are exposed to food-borne mercury that is predominantly in the methylated form. These fish are consumed by larger fish, and so on until it gets to humans.”
“In a normal diet, very little mercury gets into our body,” Dr. Ong says. “However, certain fish have higher amounts of mercury. Generally, the larger the fish, the greater the mercury content.”
Fish species with the lowest levels of mercury are dilis (anchovies), hito (catfish), galunggong (mackerel), salmon, sardines, tilapia, and bangus.
According to Dr. Ong, some people are at higher risk for mercury poisoning than others. “In cases of acute mercury poisoning,” he suggests, “bring the patient to the hospital for emergency treatment. Those who ingested mercury may be given activated charcoal to soak up and remove the chemical from the body.”