Kenya intends to ban the use of mercury in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining to protect workers and conserve the environment.
With research showing that small-scale gold miners in Kenya are among the most exposed to mercury in the world, the government has instituted measures to phase out use of the toxic chemical in gold mining.
According to Mining Principal Secretary John Omenge, the government is putting in place a legal framework that will outlaw the use of mercury in the subsector.
“The government is committed to phasing out the use of mercury among artisanal gold miners because of growing health concerns. For this we are putting in place a legal structure to stop use of mercury,” he said.
He said that through a grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in partnership with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, research is ongoing to find alternative ways to extract gold.
The GEF is spearheading the campaign to stop the use of mercury by artisanal miners and has set up a $45 million fund to support governments creating policies and market incentives that favour gold which uses less or no mercury in its extraction.
The use of mercury is the most common method used by small scale miners in recovering gold nuggets from soil and sediment.
Mercury and gold settle to form an amalgam, then the gold is extracted by vapourising the mercury through heating.
The miners use rudimentary equipment — blowtorch or stoves at home. The miners inhale the vapour from the amalgamation, to the detriment of their health.
Cyanide, another dangerous substance, is used by such miners on tailings (waste ore) to extract more gold that combines with mercury to make compounds dispersed in water and taken up in the human food chain.
Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Burundi have also announced plans to phase out use of mercury in artisanal mining of gold.
Although mercury is a naturally occurring element, it is toxic to humans, animals, and the environment when handled improperly.
According to the World Health Organisation, prolonged and high exposure to the chemical by inhalation damages the nervous, digestive and immune systems. Pregnant women also risk giving birth to babies with congenital diseases.
It can also contaminate water bodies and subsequently all fish. When ingested, mercury can accumulate in living organisms and serious damage the nervous system.
Kenya, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Peru, Mongolia and the Philippines are some of the countries that use mercury for gold extraction.
Across the globe, there are about 15 million artisanal and small scale gold miners, five million of whom are women and children.
It is estimated that 1,400 tonnes of mercury is released into the environment annually by some 70 countries that use it in extracting gold.