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Galamsey: The imminent health disaster, OccupyGhana writes to President Akufo-Addo

BY: Getrude Ankah Nyavi
Filed photo
Filed photo

Pressure group OccupyGhana has sent its sixth open letter to President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo on the illegal mining fight in Ghana.

Attached below is a copy of the letter

GALAMSEY REMINDER (NO 6) - THE IMMINENT HEALTH DISASTER

It is another Monday and since there is still no discernible executive action on bringing the rampant and irresponsible small-scale mining of gold - Galamsey - under control, here is our 7th letter and 6th reminder.

Today, we want to touch on a health issue arising from Galamsey: the problem of mercury poisoning.

Mercury is one of the top ten chemicals the WHO sees as a major health concern. Exposure to mercury - even in small amounts - can have profound health effects. Unfortunately, it is the one chemical small-scale miners use daily and often.

Mercury occurs naturally as a liquid metal and vaporizes at room temperature. The vaporised mercury can react with other environmental gases like oxygen and sulfur to form inorganic mercury salts. When elemental mercury gets into waterbodies, they are bio-transformed and produce organic mercury.

The three forms of mercury can all enter the body differently and cause health problems.

The gold ore that is excavated is washed and panned to get a concentrate that hopefully gives a high yield of gold. This concentrate is then placed in a pan. Then some mercury is poured from a bottle into a miner’s hand, added to the concentrate in the pan and mixed by hand. The mix is washed with water till only the gold-mercury amalgam remains. The discarded water from the washings is disposed off into the environment.


The amalgam is then squeezed into a piece of fabric or towel to recover excess mercury. Some miners will even suck on the fabric to recover mercury in their mouths! To get to the gold, the mercury is burnt off on a coal pot or with a blowtorch, releasing the mercury vapor into the atmosphere.

So through amalgamation of gold by the miners, all three forms of mercury are produced. The elemental form can be swallowed. In that form, it is mildly toxic.

The vapor is inhaled and gets into the lungs. Some get into the blood, turn organic and settle in the red blood cells. The mercury vapor also penetrates the central nervous system, turn into the inorganic form and get trapped in the brain.

The inorganic salts are quite toxic. They can enter the body through the mouth or the skin. They accumulate then mostly in the kidneys and brain. The half-life in the kidney is 40 days.

The organic form, called Methyl-mercury, is formed by biotransformation of elemental mercury in waterbodies like rivers, lakes and the seas. It accumulates in fish and get into humans when we eat fish from these contaminated waterbodies. From the intestines, it can cross the placenta into a fetus in a pregnant woman. It can also accumulate in the brain, red blood cells and kidney. The half-life in the kidneys is 39 to 70 days.

So what does all this accumulation of mercury in the body do?

In a nutshell:

Reproduction
- Men: erectile dysfunction, loss of libido low sperm count, infertility
- Women: infertility, miscarriages, painful menses
- Fetus: deformities, spontaneous abortions, low birth weight babies
- Brain: gait problems, blindness, hearing loss, madness
- Lungs: fibrosis, chronic respiratory failure
- Heart: enlargement and failure (cardiomyopathy)
- Liver: cirrhosis
- GI: ulcers, bleeding
- Kidneys: failure
- Blood: anemia, leukemia
- Immune System: depression, infections

Mr. President, though the miners will suffer the consequences of exposure to mercury the most, its effects will not stay localised forever. By getting into our waterbodies, people who live far away from these mining areas can be affected too. What happened in Minamata, Japan in the 1960s should be a cautionary example.

In a 2017 paper published by Francis Gbogbo and his team (Environmental Science and Pollution Research 24:5619–5627), they looked at mercury levels in crustaceans, mollusks, and fish in three Ghanaian river basins - the Ankobra, Densu , and Lower Volta. Mercury concentration was highest in Ankobra (2.5 ± 2.59 μg g-1) followed by Densu (1.75 ± 1.35 μg g-1) and Volta (0.74 ± 1.46 μg g-1). The recommended level of mercury is 0.5 mg/kg.

A recent paper by Alex Kwesi Saim (Environmental Science and Pollution Research 28:61919–61928, 2021) of the Minerals Engineering Department, University of Mines and Technology in Tarkwa discusses the level of contamination by mercury of our soils and water bodies and is worth reading by you and all our policy makers.

And so we ask you to lead the push to control small-scale mining. The health of the nation depends on it.

Yours in the service of God and Country

OccupyGhana