“Ibrahim” is a 12-year-old boy working in a small Tanzanian gold mine. One of his main jobs is to separate gold from the ore by using mercury, a toxic metal. Using his bare hands, he mixes mercury with ground-up ore to create a mercury-gold amalgam, then burns the mercury off to retrieve the raw gold. Ibrahim has worked in small-scale gold mines since he was 9 and has never been to school. In his words, “I always burn gold.”
Mercury, a liquid metal, is commonly used across Africa, Asia and Latin America in the gold mining process as a cheap and easy way to extract gold from ore. But it is also toxic to human health and the environment. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause heart failure and developmental delays. It is particularly harmful to children and can result in life-long disability.
Hundreds of thousands of adults and children work in Tanzania’s small gold mines. And Tanzania is not alone. The International Labour Organization estimates that one million children work in mining globally. Human Rights Watch also has documented children’s mercury exposure in mining communities in Mali, Ghana, and Papua New Guinea.
For these children, mercury may be cutting their lives short. When I visited a mining community in Tanzania recently, I spoke to children working with mercury and observed toddlers inhaling toxic fumes from the burning mercury-gold amalgam. What can be done to protect these children from mercury? Does anyone even care?
The answer may come from far away. Minamata, a small Japanese fishing town, is the site of an industrial accident where leaked mercury killed at least 1,700 people and left many more disabled. Governments from around the world will gather there in October to sign a new international environmental treaty: The Minamata Convention on Mercury.
Under this new international convention, governments will be required to reduce mercury use and exposure in various products and industries. They will be obligated “to prevent the exposure of vulnerable populations, particularly children and women of child-bearing age” to mercury used in small-scale gold mining. This is the first time international law has recognized the risk of mercury exposure to children, making their protection a duty of governments that join the treaty.
Under the convention, governments will have to educate miners about the risks of mercury use, prevent illegal mercury trade, promote mercury-free alternatives and act to eliminate the most harmful forms of mercury use – such as the open burning of amalgam practiced by Ibrahim.
The convention, unusual for an environmental treaty, also recognizes the role of health ministries, promoting measures to monitor, test and treat mercury exposure. During the negotiations process for the treaty, Tanzania and many other countries with small-scale mining supported these critical steps to protect miners from mercury.
Governments in all parts of the world should sign, ratify, and – most important – put into practice the Minamata Convention, which will bring new momentum to working to solve a persistent problem. For Ibrahim and the many other children working with mercury in Tanzania and all around the world, this convention could offer an escape from a job that nobody should have to do.
Juliane Kippenberg is a Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch. She has documented mercury use in small-scale gold mines in Tanzania and other countries and participated in the negotiations for the Minamata Convention.