Mercury, a highly toxic substance, is found in a lot of products – thermometers, dental fillings, batteries, and light bulbs. It is also a byproduct of coal production, cement production, and waste incineration. But today, the leading cause of man-made mercury pollution isn’t any of these. It’s gold mining.
We find this fact alarming, but at least it means that a new international treaty to reduce global mercury pollution is focused, to a great extent, on stopping dirty gold mining. And this makes the treaty, finalized last month in Geneva, a very exciting development in the push to make jewelry production more ethical and eco-friendly.
Almost 40 percent of man-made mercury pollution each year results from artisanal gold mining – the kind of gold mining in which people, usually in developing countries, use simple methods to mine for gold, like panning in streams or digging makeshift mine shafts.
Artisanal gold miners have long found that one of the easiest ways to separate pure gold from unwanted rock and minerals is to use a chemical process involving mercury. About 1,400 tons of mercury are spewed into the environment every year due to artisanal gold mining – and the problem has only been getting worse, because the rising price of gold has led to a sharp upturn in gold mining throughout the world. .
Mercury is terrible for the environment, but it is particularly bad for human health. In children and unborn babies, mercury can impair neurological development. Adults exposed to mercury in high enough doses can suffer from brain damage. Regular exposure can result in fatigue, weight loss, tremors, and behavioral and personality shifts.
The people most at risk for mercury exposure are artisanal gold miners themselves. An estimated 15 million people work as artisanal gold miners, mostly in Asia, Africa, and South America. On a daily basis, many gold miners handle or breathe mercury, which is silvery-white in its liquid form but odorless as a vapor. In addition, mercury released in one place is easily transported thousands of miles away, either through the air or by emptying into rivers and oceans. Fish with elevated mercury levels, like bluefin tuna, are sold all over the world and perhaps in your neighborhood sushi restaurant.
The global aspect of mercury pollution is the reason why an international response was needed. The new treaty, agreed to by 140 nations, will regulate the supply, trade, and use of the substance. The treaty doesn’t ban or create binding limits on mercury emissions – much to the chagrin of some environmentalists. However, it does require governments to draw up national action plans. Over the next few years, we hope to see more governments develop strategies to regulate artisanal gold mining and help gold miners use more eco-friendly methods.
We know that change will not come quickly or easily. The treaty will not even be signed until this October, when delegates meet again in Japan for a signing ceremony. It will not come into effect until 50 nations ratify it. Even then, figuring out how to change gold mining practices will be hard. Artisanal gold mining often takes place in rural areas of developing countries, where it is difficult for governments to enforce regulations or promote new mining methods.
We think it is here that jewelry consumers – and jewelers like Brilliant Earth – have a role to play. During the past few years, we have been helping to pioneer a strategy that could make a big difference in artisanal gold mining practices: a fair trade gold certification system. The fair trade gold system ensures that miners receive fair value for their gold and even pays a premium to artisanal miners who use eco-friendly methods. In other words, fair trade gold provides what governments often can’t: an economic incentive to stop using mercury.
At Brilliant Earth, we have historically used only recycled gold and platinum in our wedding and engagement rings. However, we are beginning to offer some jewelry made of fair trade gold as more sources of fair trade gold become available. What is needed now, we think, is a more concerted push by governments, industry, and non-profit groups to assist artisanal miners in joining the fledgling fair trade gold certification system. Jewelers like Brilliant Earth, in turn, can promote fair trade gold among consumers. The bigger that fair trade gold gets, the more that it will become a viable option for artisanal gold miners.
Someday, we believe, all of these combined efforts will lead to real results. We look forward to being part of this new worldwide effort to reduce mercury pollution and limit the harm caused to communities both near and far.