Crude methods of gold extraction can also expose miners to very high levels of lead toxicity. Children gold miners in Nigeria suffer the twin effects of mercury and lead poisoning. Photo: greenfudge.org

United Nations, New York, 10 January 2013 (UPI) – People in developing countries are facing increasing health and environmental risks linked to exposure to mercury, a U.N. report says.

Parts of Africa, Asia and South America are at risk of increasing emissions of mercury into the environment, mostly the use of the toxic element in small-scale gold mining and through the burning of coal for electricity generation, a release from the U.N. Environment Program said Thursday.

"Mercury, which exists in various forms, remains a major global, regional and national challenge in terms of threats to human health and the environment," UNEP's Executive Director Achim Steiner, said in a statement.

Mercury released from industry and other man-made sources can circulate in the environment for up to centuries at a time, the UNEP report said, requiring years or even decades before reductions in mercury emissions have a demonstrable effect on mercury levels in nature and in the food chain.

Emissions of the toxic metal from small-scale gold mining have doubled since 2005, the report authors said, and rising gold prices will almost certainly lead to further increases. [more]

Mercury said risk in developing countries


Small-scale gold production using mercury in Africa. Photo: arlgold.com via UNEP

Nairobi/Geneva, 10 January 2013 (UNEP) – Communities in developing countries are facing increasing health and environmental risks linked to exposure to mercury, according to new studies by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Parts of Africa, Asia and South America could see increasing emissions of mercury into the environment, due mainly to the use of the toxic element in small-scale gold mining, and through the burning of coal for electricity generation.

The Global Mercury Assessment 2013 [pdf] states that emissions of the toxic metal from artisanal gold mining are significantly greater than were reported in 2008. Rising gold prices are driving greater small-mining activity, but new and improved reporting has also provided more accurate estimates of emissions from the sector.

Due to rapid industrialization, Asia is the largest regional emitter of mercury, and accounts for just under half of all global releases. 

The UNEP study assesses for the first time at a global level releases of mercury into rivers and lakes. The report says an estimated 260 tonnes of mercury - previously held in soils - are being released into rivers and lakes.

Much human exposure to mercury is through the consumption of contaminated fish, making aquatic environments the critical link to human health.

In the past 100 years, man-made emissions have caused the amount of mercury in the top 100 metres of the world's oceans to double. Concentrations in deeper waters have increased by up to 25 per cent.

The study, which provides a comprehensive breakdown of mercury emissions by region and economic sector, also highlights significant releases into the environment linked to contaminated sites and deforestation.

The report says an estimated 260 tonnes of mercury - previously held in soils - are being released into rivers and lakes through deforestation and subsequent soil erosion.

Along with a parallel UNEP publication Mercury: Time to Act [pdf] the new assessment will be formally presented at the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury (INC5), to be held in Geneva on 13-18 January 2013. Governments attending the major conference are aiming to conclude discussions on a global legally binding treaty to minimize risks to people and the environment from exposure to mercury. [more]

UNEP Studies Show Rising Mercury Emissions in Developing Countries

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