Mary Adhiambo’s frail frame and watery eyes are the first signs of her poor health. Her heavy breathing prevents her from engaging in lengthy talk, but the gold trade, her source of livelihood, is unforgiving. Haggling over price is the order of the day, and she has to keep up, although it leaves her breathless.
And when not buying the ore for resale, she can be found burning gold amalgam, which contains mercury, a heavy metal used to separate gold from dirt, but notorious for impairing the nervous system. She does this on the veranda outside the cubicle she shares with her six children.
Inhaling mercury fumes saw the mother of six admitted to Kisii Hospital in western Kenya early this year, where doctors worked to neutralise mercury overload in her body, which experienced constant shivers.
But just weeks after discharge from hospital, Adhiambo, 36, is back to the only trade she knows.
“The doctors told me it is the mercury that is affecting me. I want to stop doing this business, but not until I get an alternative. I will keep doing it because I have children to take care of,” she said.
Adhiambo is just one of hundreds of women in Nyatike Sub-county, Migori County, in western Kenya engaged in gold mining and continually exposed to debilitating health risks.
Nyalal Atieno, also an artisanal miner at Osiri Matanda, one of the major gold mining sites in Kenya, remains sickly to date, suffering regular bouts of bloody diarrhoea, unexplained joint pains and general weakness. She can no longer relax at night because of persistent chest pains, heavy breathing, and fatigue.
The effects of mercury poisoning are so dire that some women bear children impaired by heavy metal. Stillbirths are also common in the area.
Some children are born healthy but are later affected by prolonged exposure to mercury fumes.
The health complications witnessed in Nyatike support the findings of a recent study by IPEN, a global network of organisations working towards the elimination of toxic chemicals, which found that the use of mercury by pregnant women posed serious and substantial threats to their health and to babies in utero.
The report said 71 per cent of women from three gold mining sites in Kenya had elevated mercury levels of 0.58 ppm (parts per million, the measure of mercury concentration) in hair samples, with 44 per cent exceeding the 1 ppm threshold.
The estimation of mercury levels through hair samples measures the level of methylmercury, the most toxic form of the element.
Recent studies indicate that negative developmental effects might occur even at lower levels, and that the 0.58 threshold should be adopted as the measure below which impacts on the developing foetus are negligible.
To break down the figures, the IPEN study found that 64 per cent of samples from Osiri Matanda and other mining sites in Migori, like Mikei, exceeded the 1 ppm measure.
Some samples from the Kenyan mining sites had some of the second-highest levels of mercury body burden recorded during the global study, reaching 81.12 ppm trailing only Indonesia’s Sekotong region, which had the highest mercury burden of 90.84 ppm.