Apr 03, 2018 News
– Says successive Governments and GGMC executives should have known mercury burning lab is recipe disaster
The Alliance For Change (AFC) is calling on the relevant authorities to pull out all stops to ensure the health and safety of the hundreds working at the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) Brickdam compound where burning of the amalgam is done.
This was the subject of AFC’s Sunday column published in this newspaper.
AFC said that it noted the “most distressing situation” involving many GGMC workers showing symptoms of mercury poisoning. The party also noted the many, many dangers of mercury poisoning. However, it offered no possible solution to the dilemma being faced by the exposed workers.
While media reports only highlighted the plight of GGMC workers who were tested for mercury in blood, the AFC acknowledged the fact that workers attached to the various agencies in same compound are exposed as well. GGMC, the Guyana Gold Board and the Ministry of Natural Resources all share the same compound which is situated next to the Ministry of Public Health.
AFC said that for decades, the Gold Board’s testing and assayer’s laboratory has been located in that compound. The party noted that raw gold brought in for declaration by a relatively large brigade of miners/pork knockers, (Venezuelan, Brazilian, Indian, Chinese or Guyanese), is tested for purity, quality, malleability and ductility, among other things at that very lab.
AFC said that “in retrospect, successive Guyanese Governments and GGMC executives at both the Commission and the Board should have been switched on to the fact that prolonged exposure to mercury vapour is a recipe for serious illnesses, medical debilitation or fatality.”
The political party said that Governments should have also been guided by the findings of a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study that was conducted within the Guianas – Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
One of study’s findings was that jewellers working in secure, tightly enclosed rooms presented higher levels of mercury in their bodies than miners who work in open camps. AFC said that that single finding “should have alerted us to the possibility that the people working in the Gold Board’s labs (at least) may have been exposed to this potentially debilitating metallic element.”
“So now we know, and now is the time for every authority to act quickly to mitigate the situation at the GGMC and Gold Board,” said the AFC.
One of AFC’s representatives in government is Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman. In fact, he is the current leader of the party. He also has ministerial oversight for the GGMC and the Gold Board. Trotman’s Ministry is also housed in the very compound shared by the other two named agencies.
GGMC workers have been calling for the removal of the lab since they say it is waste of time being treated for mercury and returning to the same environment that caused the poisoning.
AFC did not support that call in its column neither did it make any other recommendation. However, the party provided an update to the situation.
The AFC said that it has been told that nearly 200 GGMC workers are being tested to determine their levels of contamination, if any. The party also stated that, “medical experts may also want to include the staff at the Natural Resources Ministry and the workers in compounds neighbouring and opposite the GGMC.
Management says that this situation calls for utmost urgency, and that medical personnel from Eureka Labs have been contracted to conduct the tests, procure emergency medication, and treat all staff who present higher than acceptable levels of contamination.”
The party said that both public and private sector agencies and companies should now pay keener attention to their own operations and hasten to take every precautionary action if their workers deal with any hazardous material, “even bleach and toilet cleaner, on a daily basis.”
The party further noted, “Proprietors of jewellery stores, in particular, ought to have their gemologists, repairers, cleaners and polishers, even janitors, tested for possible mercury contamination.
“This situation brings to mind the fact that there are a few buildings still in use in and outside the City that have asbestos roofs, walls and ceilings. We could hazard a guess at 40-year-old buildings. This too is dangerous to the health of all who enter those edifices.”
GUYANA LEFT BEHIND
The AFC noted that Guyana has been left behind. The party said, “Guyana is among the last few gold-producing states in the world that have not instituted an outright ban, or imposed stringent restrictions on the use of elemental mercury.
“We have found out that mercury released by small-scale mining around the world is a very significant source of atmospheric pollution, and it has been added to the list of ‘must-dos’ in the fight against global warming.”
Mercury is easily absorbed by humans, animals and marine life. Mercury is absorbed directly through the skin, but the main route of exposure is inhalation. Both mercury vapour and methyl mercury affect the brain, the nervous system, and all of your five senses – vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. It affects internal organs as well, e.g. liver, kidneys and glands.
Mercury also passes through the placenta in pregnant women, affecting developing foetuses. Mercury would impair proper development of nervous tissue and can result in mild to severe reduced intelligence and coordination, and distortion of limbs, at birth or later.
GGMC workers claimed that there might have been at least one death associated with the inhalation of mercury emissions.
Staffers said that last January, a carpenter attached to GGMC died of kidney failure. That complication is believed to have been associated with high exposure to mercury. “He was a fairly young man; he worked for years at the carpentry workshop which is close to the lab where the burning is done.”
Staffers said that for over six years, no testing of workers has been done, “so the man might have had high levels of mercury in his blood but never knew.”
Kaieteur News also learnt that only about five of the 55 workers recently tested were found to have safe levels of mercury in the blood.
The industrial nurse attached to GGMC told the workers that 0-6 microgram per litre (mcg/l) is safe; 7-10 mcg/l is high, and anything more than 11 mcg/l would be considered dangerous.
However, the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) has advised workers that they consider 3mcg/l and above to be worthy of medical attention.
Hardly any of the workers who were tested were found to have under 2mcg/l. While most workers fell in the range of 6 to 12, alarmingly some persons are as high as 21.
NIS has told the workers that they will treat the issue as an industrial accident in terms of exposure and negligence.
There is no treatment for mercury available in Guyana. GGMC has announced that it is importing relevant medication needed by those affected.
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