Across Myanmar, artisanal miners hunt for gold flecks in rivers and pit mines. The work is physically taxing and the income meagre. For many, the sprinkling of particles they find will only offer a few extra dollars of daily income.
It is also dangerous. Mercury is widely used to recover small pieces of gold in soil and sediment – it combines with the gold to form an amalgam that is more easily extracted. But the mercury is poisonous. Miners can inhale vapor from mercury burning or ingest the heavy metal as they eat fish contaminated with mercury runoff. Adverse effects from exposure including kidney and autoimmune dysfunction, and neurological deterioration.
An estimated 173,375 people work in Myanmar’s artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector, with actual figures likely to be higher. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working with the Government of Myanmar to reduce the impact of mercury on artisanal miners. Part of this support is building Myanmar’s capacity to ratify and implement the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a multilateral environmental agreement that aims to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.
The year 2020 is a milestone for the Minamata Convention. It represents the deadline for phasing out the manufacture, import and export of many mercury-containing products listed in the Convention.
Efforts are ongoing to develop an assessment of where Myanmar stands with regards to the provisions of the Convention. UNEP is also supporting Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC) on developing a National Action Plan to reduce and eventually eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Conducting the assessment and monitoring compliance with existing regulations requires special equipment. In particular, a mercury meter, an expensive piece of technology, was vital to ensuring MONREC had the capacity to conduct surveys properly. To solve this problem, UNEP, in collaboration with the Japan Association for UNEP, facilitated the donation of a mercury meter to the Government of Myanmar from technology company CASIO Japan, which is supporting UNEP’s mercury regulation activities.
“Anthropogenic mercury emissions are bad for human health and for the environment,” said Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UNEP’s Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste and Air Quality in Asia and the Pacific. “In Myanmar, we can make a big difference by improving capacity for mercury monitoring and detection. This contribution from CASIO will help greatly this regard.”
The EMP-3 Portable Mercury Survey Meter is a compact, lightweight and reliable portable mercury analyzer, which normally retails for around US$11,000. Environmental monitoring teams deployed by MONREC will use the new machine to detect mercury in their field surveys. “The mercury survey meter will help us not only for mercury-contaminated site assessments in Myanmar but also for environmental quality monitoring activities of Environmental Conservation Department,” said Hla Maung Thein, Director General of MONREC’s Environmental Conservation Department
A 2015 study in Myanmar found that miners had more than twice the amount of mercury in their body compared to non-miners. For a sector so widely afflicted, the new monitoring capacity will be a welcome safeguard for the health of tens of thousands.