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Extracting gold with mercury exacts a lethal toll

October 9, 2015 at 6:30 PM EST
In Indonesia, the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining has tragic health consequences for those living near mining operations. Toxic plumes and other forms of exposure cause neurological problems, bone deformities, vision loss, deafness and even death. The NewsHour's P.J. Tobia reports in collaboration with photographer Larry C. Price and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first a warning: Our next story contains graphic images of children and adults severely disabled by mercury poisoning. It may be disturbing to some viewers.

The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia has the report, the latest in a series by photographer Larry C. Price. It was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Small-scale gold mining is widespread throughout the developing world. It’s one of the biggest sources of mercury pollution on earth. The health effects of this heavy metal are dramatic and deadly.

P.J. TOBIA: This is Nyimas. She lives in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Just 8 years old, she has the body of an emaciated toddler and severe brain damage. Her head is massively oversized. She suffers from hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain. Caring for her is a struggle.

Her mother actually chews her food for her, before pushing the grains of rice to the child’s mouth.

PUASI, Nyimas’ Mother (through interpreter): She is still like a baby. At night, she often cries. It’s difficult for her to sleep. I have to watch her all night. She will ask me to turn her over. It’s just me by myself. No one else helps.

P.J. TOBIA: Nyimas’ illness is just one of what some Indonesians call the uncommon diseases. Medical experts say conditions like this are all too common in the area. They call it mercury intoxication. It’s caused when people ingest the toxic metal.

PUASI (through interpreter): There are many people burning mercury all around here, in front of our house. My husband burns it as well, but I don’t let him do it here.

P.J. TOBIA: Small-scale gold mining is a major source of income throughout Sulawesi. Liquid mercury is key to the process.

It’s first used to separate rock and dirt from gold dust in these makeshift factories called ball mills. Later, bare hands form the mercury and gold into a ball. The mercury is next burnt away with torches. Plumes of toxic clouds float through the villages and into the lungs and blood streams of inhabitants.

When Nyimas’ mother was pregnant with her, her father worked in the gold processing business. The village they live in now has mills that process gold using mercury 24 hours a day.

Dr. Stephan Bose-O’Reilly is a volunteer at BaliFokus, an Indonesian non-governmental organization that tries to educate Indonesians about the dangers of working with mercury.

DR. STEPHAN BOSE-O’REILLY, Bali Fokus: Next to the ball mills, there are these big fish ponds. And next to them are the rice fields, and the people here feed on that food, on the local fish, on the local rice. And the rice and the fish takes up mercury in the form of metal mercury.

P.J. TOBIA: Medical and environmental studies conducted by BaliFokus and the Indonesian government have shown that 10 percent of people in some parts of the country suffer from mercury intoxication.

Mercury poisoning can be found throughout Sulawesi, a poor, centrally located island in Indonesian archipelago. But small-scale gold mining using liquid mercury can be found throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas. According to the U.N., it’s one of the biggest contributors to global mercury pollution.

Ten-year-old Dita’s parents used to have a mercury-burning business. As a toddler, she began to have trouble walking. Over time, her condition worsened. Eventually, this 12-foot bamboo hut became her entire world.

Dita’s mother suffers from hearing loss and gets headaches, also symptoms of mercury poisoning. In tests conducted by Bali Fokus last spring, 28 children living in or near gold mining hot spots suffered from multiple health issues, including neurological problems, bone deformities, seizures, vision loss, deafness and paralysis.

Since the research was conducted, three of the children died. One was Dita. She passed away just last week. But it’s not just children.

Tahoonda is 45 years old.

DR. STEPHAN BOSE-O’REILLY: This man was a healthy farmer living here, doing some mining work, like crushing ore. And then, a couple of years ago, he started to become sick. He felt that he can’t coordinate his movements anymore, that he can’t walk properly anymore.

P.J. TOBIA: His condition worsened by the month.

DR. STEPHAN BOSE-O’REILLY: This man has a neurological disease. It disables him in daily life. He has problems to follow daily routines. He’s severely sick.

P.J. TOBIA: Dr. Bose-O’Reilly says Tahoonda’s illness come from the gold process surrounding him day and night.

DR. STEPHAN BOSE-O’REILLY: You can see next to his house is a ball mill. You can even hear it here in the room.

P.J. TOBIA: According to tests conducted in the area, mercury levels are 50 times safe levels recommended by the United Nations.

Pahir worked with mercury most of his life. He’s shown here in his mid-60s being tested by a doctor from Bali Fokus. He can barely carry out simple hand-eye coordination tasks, like touching his nose while his eyes are closed or placing these matches back in their box. Pahir died just weeks after these pictures were taken.

DR. STEPHAN BOSE-O’REILLY: The kind of activities is normal. It’s not more or less than elsewhere in Indonesia, and there are hundreds of places like this, in villages where gold mining is performed and mercury is used.

P.J. TOBIA: In 2014, the Indonesian government banned the importation, trade and use of mercury in small-scale gold mining, but the regulations are not widely enforced. And liquid mercury is still easy to come by in places like Sulawesi.

Dr. Muchtarudin Mansyur is a director at the Indonesian Ministry of Health. He admits that mercury use is widespread throughout the country.

DR. MUCHTARUDIN MANSYUR, Indonesian Ministry of Health: Eight hundred hot spots, including 250,000 workers.

P.J. TOBIA: Even still, Mansyur says that the government has not done much to stop the use of mercury.

DR. MUCHTARUDIN MANSYUR: In mining, what we have done is a bit limited, but we try to find the better choice, to replace the mercury, I mean.

P.J. TOBIA: People in Nyimas’ village don’t talk much about the dangers of this heavy metal, even as it sickens them.

PUASI (through interpreter): We have never spoken to our neighbors about it. Nobody in the village discusses it.

P.J. TOBIA: So, mercury continues to be used, producing golden products and deadly silence.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m P.J. Tobia.

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