What Do Mercury Emissions Have to Do with Gold Jewelry?
FIRST OF ALL - WHAT IS MERCURY?
What is Mercury? Mercury is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the top ten chemicals of major public concern. Human activity is the main cause of mercury releases including mining for gold.
The most dangerous form of mercury. Methylmercury is toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The organic compound is formed when mercury combines with carbon. Microscopic organisms convert mercury into methylmercury, which is the most common organic mercury compound found in the environment.
Mercury is a highly toxic metal, in particular when it turns into methylmercury, its most dangerous form. Methylmercury (MeHg) has the capacity to accumulate in organisms and concentrate in food chains, especially in fish.
We know that anthropogenic emissions (human caused) including small-scale gold mining continue to add significantly to the global pool of mercury.Globally, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is the largest source of worldwide anthropogenic mercury emissions (38%).
WHY IS MERCURY SO DAMAGING?
There is no safe level of exposure to mercury nor are there cures for mercury poisoning, which at high levels causes irreversible neurological and health damage.
Elemental and methylmercury are toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The inhalation of mercury vapor can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.
Mercury emissions impact health and ecosystems, contaminating the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. This is a long-term problem we need to confront now.
Between 15 and 19 million people use mercury to mine for gold in more than 70 countries, making mercury pollution from artisanal small scale gold mining a global issue that needs to be remedied.
SOURCES OF HUMAN-CAUSED MERCURY EMISSIONS
Here are the Mercury emissions from the eight highest emitting industry sectors. Data from the 2013 UNEP Global Mercury Assessment in metric tons:
Artisanal Small Scale Gold Mining 730 tons
Coal Combustion 470 tons
Non-Ferrous Metals 300 tons
Cement Production 170 tons
Consumer Products 80 tons
Iron and Steel 50 tons
Chlor-Alkali 30 tons
Oil Refining 20 tons
Other than artisanal small scale gold mining, all the other sources are reducing their emissions through government regulation. The scale, number of lives involved and lack of regulation in the gold mining industry makes it extremely difficult to reduce mercury emissions through regulation.
Since most of this gold mined is used to make jewelry, the world is relying on the jewelry industry and consumers to make responsible choices for gold jewelry mined without toxic chemicals as an incentive for miners to change to clean mining practices. We all can make a difference and make the planet a safer place. Let’s do it.
Gold Mining for Jewelry - The Process
Mercury is abundant, relatively cheap, and known to be very effective in extracting gold from rock and ore and therefore the simple choice in the gold mining industry. It has been used for hundreds of years.
In many small-scale gold mining operations, the rocks and ore where the gold is found are first crushed into small pieces by hand or machine. This material which has the consistency of coarse sand, is then added with water into motorized mills or trommels. Because water is used, this equipment is often built near waterways such as rivers, which can later be subject to severe mercury pollution. Heavy steel or tungsten bars or balls are also added to the trommels to pulverize the ore upon rotation.
To extract the gold from the crushed ore, liquid mercury is added directly to the trommel and mixed for several hours. The mercury attaches to the gold and the mercury–gold amalgam which is dense separates from the finer crushed rocks and sand. The amalgam is then isolated by hand and excess liquid mercury is recovered for reuse. The amalgamation process may be repeated 3 or 4 times to maximize gold extraction. The combined mercury–gold amalgams are then strained through cloth to remove excess liquid mercury and provide a mercury-gold amalgam ball.The next step in the process is especially dangerous to the miners and the planet. To recover the gold from the amalgam, the solid is heated to vaporize the mercury and separate it from the gold. The heating can be accomplished with a hand torch or a stove. This mercury distillation step in the mining process is when exposure to mercury gas occurs and the emissions are emitted into the atmosphere.
There are options available to artisanal and small-scale gold miners that don’t use mercury in the mining process. Gravity concentration methods using sluicing, shaking tables, spiral concentrators, vortex concentrators and centrifuges are all options that can be used after factors such as ore type or sediment, other minerals present, gold particle size and availability of water and electricity are considered. If consumers make mercury free mined gold jewelry a must, the old ways of gold mining will have to be abandoned to meet consumer preferences. Just as we did a decade ago, when we said no to “blood diamonds”.
WHY WE HAVE TO SUPPORT SMALL-SCALE GOLD MINING
As many as 19 million people work in the ASGM sector globally including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children. Over 100 million people are directly dependent on the associated income and rely on this sector for their daily sustenance.
We must keep in mind that these miners live in some of the poorest areas of the world and have few, if any, options for other employment and income. Mining for gold is their livelihood and a means to support their family. Policies, technologies and service work aimed at lowering the burden of mercury emissions on health and the environment, therefore, need to consider how such measures support the miners not take away their livelihood.
The new United Nation’s Minamata Convention on mercury named after a mercury poisoning disaster that killed more than 1,700 people in Japan half a century ago was formed in 2017 to do exactly this. Support the miners. The Convention is a huge step forward in protecting the right to health and livelihood.
As most of this gold is used in the jewelry industry, promoting and buying clean ethical gold jewelry is the best way to support the miners, their livelihood, their futures and ours.
Adorning ourselves with gold jewelry goes all the way back to our Ancient ancestors and the establishment of civilization. It's a ritualistic act that for many remains a truly timeless mode of self-expression. Gold is eternal, and the lure of it is undeniable. This is why we believe it will never fade as a means of adornment and expression.
We're never going to stop wearing gold. Regardless of the use of recycled gold, mining will continue because there is still a need for newly mined gold that outweighs the availability of recycled gold. In addition, we can still support the millions of people who rely on mining as a livelihood to support their families. The most ethical and modern solution is to source Fairmined Ecological gold for the future of our planet, our children, and our grandchildren.
Who is Doing What When It Comes to Mercury Emissions?
On the 16th of August 2017, 105 countries agreed to sign the landmark United Nations Minamata Treaty. The global mission is to "protect millions of children and infants from possible neurological and health damage. Governments that are party to the Minamata Convention are now legally bound to take a range of measures to protect human health and the environment by addressing mercury throughout its life-cycle”. The Minamata Convention commits
Governments to specific measures, which include: banning new mercury mines, phasing-out existing ones, regulating artisanal and small-scale gold mining, and reducing emissions and mercury use. Since the element is indestructible, the Convention also stipulates conditions for interim storage and disposal of mercury waste.
Established in 2006 the Fairmined Initiative was created by the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), a non-profit organization globally recognized as a leader and pioneer of responsible artisanal and small-scale mining. Fairmined is an assurance label that certifies gold from empowered responsible artisanal and small-scale mining organizations. Anyone who buys gold certified by Fairmined can support responsibly managed community mines. It provides strict traceability requirements and is backed by a rigorous 3rd party certification and audit system that ensures that artisanal and small-scale mining organizations meet world leading standards for responsible practices, delivering organizational and social development and environmental protection.In 2022 there are only three gold mines certified by FAIRMINED as Ecological (mercury free). The reason for the small number is consumer demand.
At the moment very few consumers and jewelers see a market for jewelry made with mercury free mined gold. Major luxury brands respond to consumer demand and to challenger brands who ignite a shift in consumer behavior. There hasn't been any such stimulus in existence to date. Futura Jewelry only uses certified Fairmined Ecological Gold (mercury free). Our mission is to ignite this shift in consumer behavior. We have our work cut out for us if we want to have a safer planet for ourselves and future generations. Giving consumers a clean gold jewelry option, improvement will come one consumer at a time.
Why Is It Important to Act Now on
Cleaning Up the Gold Mining Industry?
Younger consumers have woken. Now more than ever they choose fresh, new brands with integrity and values that resonate with their commitment to a cleaner future and ethical practices.
Just as they respond to Stella McCartney, Everlane, Veja sneakers, Tesla electric motor vehicles, they are ready for the first responsible jewelry brand to respond too. No Major premium fine jewelry brands have authentically responded to the mercury emissions crisis through altering their gold jewelry offering with clean ethical gold.
We are on the cusp of a movement to responsibly address the mercury emissions threat to our planet. In 2020, Johnny Depp starred in the movie “Minamata” which highlighted the devastation of mercury emissions to an audience who were otherwise unaware of the damage mercury can cause. Mercury emissions are about to become a well-known issue, along the lines of climate change and over consumption.
The world does not need another jewelry brand. It does, however, need brands to act responsibly and with compassion and commitment to ethical practices or a highly responsible alternative brand committed to leading the jewelry industry to do better. Futura Jewelry was founded to be that highly responsible alternative jewelry brand that speaks to an influential awakened audience with a quality message of ethical substance.