By Abena Rockcliffe-Campbell
If mercury vapour is inhaled, it is easily absorbed by the body, where it first gets into the lungs then into the blood and the brain. The nerve poison can cause sleep disorders, agitation, and paralysis. Effects of sustained exposures to high levels of mercury emissions include disturbances in vision, hearing and speech, numbness in fingers and toes and lack of coordination and muscle weakness. Mercury also proves to cause a serious health risk to unborn children whose mothers have been too exposed.
It was recently discovered that workers of the Guyana Gold Board Guyana and the Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), have been exposed to levels of mercury emissions, and mercury levels detected in the blood exceed amounts that are considered safe.
Kaieteur News understands that the situation is not considered serious, but the affected persons are being monitored by medical officials.
The Gold Board has a facility at GGMC where burning of the amalgam is done. This is basically a process where the gold is burnt to get rid of the mercury that is used for mining.
Of course, quantities of mercury escape during this process.
A few years ago, GGMC sourced equipment to test the air in order to determine the levels of mercury emission in the compound as well as minimize the levels of emissions, so that it would not be a threat to the persons in the compound. Weekly tests used to be done. However, the equipment was down for some time.
Kaieteur News understands that only recently the equipment was fixed and is now up and running. When tests were done, it was found that several employees operating in the Brickdam compound that houses the Ministry of Natural Resources, GGMC and Gold Board, have more than acceptable levels of mercury in their blood.
GGMC ACTS RESPONSIBLY
GGMC Commissioner, Newell Dennison was contacted yesterday for a comment on the matter.
The Commissioner was somewhat hesitant to speak, as he opined that a comment would have been best sourced from the Guyana Gold Board “because the facility that creates that particular risk exposure comes under the Gold Board not under GGMC, even though it is in our compound.”
Nevertheless, Dennison admitted that officials are indeed concerned over the emissions of mercury into the environment. He said that it is an issue that needs to be monitored continuously.
While this newspaper was previously told that the equipment was down, Dennison clarified that there was a “malfunction.”
He said that the malfunction was detected and “I have been assured that the Gold Board has taken all the necessary steps to have that corrected so that any exposures that may have been occurring during that time are now no longer a risk to us.”
Dennison said that indeed tests have proven that some persons have more than regular amounts of mercury in their blood. He said that the Commission has taken a responsible approach to the matter, and is seeking to ensure that all affected persons are taken full care of.
“Those persons who have been found to be exposed at GGMC are being taken care of. I am working with our industrial nurse to determine how we can afford them the proper and necessary evaluation and, if necessary, treatment.
Gold Board is not the only facility that does amalgam burning.
Dennison confirmed that “there are other licensed dealers who would have to have that in their protocol, and I know these jewellery establishments may have to do burning as well”.
The Commissioner said that GGMC regularly inspects the premises of jewellers to ensure that the manner in which they treat with their gold and premises is in accordance with regulation. Dennison said that there is usually minimum need for burning at these facilities.
“If they buy pure gold from the gold board it doesn’t have much mercury, but it will have mercury if the gold is bought from miners, but we try to make sure the necessary safeguards are there.
The government continues to promote the abolition of the use of mercury in mining. However, many in the mining industry are still to abort mercury.
Addressing the National Assembly last December, Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, noted that mercury-free mining has been embraced by President David Granger as an urgent goal in achieving a Green Economy.
Trotman said that GGMC will need to invest in alternative technologies. Trotman said that some of these technologies are already familiar to the miners from previously staged settings.
Trotman said that those measures and the Ministry’s work in collaboration with Conservation International, the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) and the Guyana Women Miners’ Organization (GWMO) are anticipated to “provide credibility and acceptance of our efforts.”
However, the GGDMA is on record saying that it will not support the complete discontinuation of the use of mercury, since it will have significant impacts on the sector and, by extension, the economy.
The GGDMA said that though significant efforts have been made to reduce mercury use, no better alternative has been demonstrated to replace the widely-used substance.
The gold sector employs more than 18,000 persons directly and supports the livelihoods of more than 100,000 persons indirectly, and is the country’s single largest foreign exchange earner.
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