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Unearthing toxic conditions for impoverished gold miners

February 17, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
In Indonesia and the Philippines, children can earn a few dollars a day mining artisanal gold under dangerous conditions. Workers are also exposed to poisonous mercury when they process the precious metal. The NewsHour's P.J. Tobia reports with photographer Larry C. Price on the true price of gold.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Chinese new year, celebrated this week, often marks a frenzy of gold-buying. But some of that gold comes at a high price for the impoverished nations that produce it.

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

P.J. TOBIA: These best friends, Duku and Yoyo, 8 and 10 years old, earn just a few dollars a day, every day, mining gold in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Yoyo’s mother thinks it may be all they ever do.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I have a plan to get out of here, just no money.

P.J. TOBIA: Duku and Yoyo have worked the mines for two years. They don’t get many breaks, they don’t have any toys, and they’re not in school regularly.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Yoyo can read a little, but Duku cannot, because he hasn’t gone to school yet.

P.J. TOBIA: When asked if he’d rather be in school, Duku just shrugs and gets back to work. Other children labor underground, unfortunately well-suited for this grueling labor, tiny tunnels, tiny bodies.

Small, artisanal gold mines can be found on every continent, often in remote regions of unstable countries. Indonesia is one of the world’s leading suppliers of this precious metal. The Philippines also produces tons of gold, much of it ripped from the earth by hands like these.

Parents don’t choose this life for their children, but there’s no other option.

CARLOS CONDE, Human Rights Watch, Philippines: Those parents are forcing them.

P.J. TOBIA: Carlos Conde is a researcher at Human Rights Watch in the Philippines.

CARLOS CONDE: You always have that component of parents, if not forcing, convincing them that they have to work in the fields, that they have to work in the factory or that they have to work in the mining operations. It’s poverty, basically.

P.J. TOBIA: These children spend their days crushing the rocks that miners like Duku and Yoyo chisel from the earth.  They sift through the ore, looking for sparkling gold residue no bigger than a grain of sand.  It’s tedious, but the worst is still ahead.

Liquid mercury, one of the most dangerous heavy metals on the planet, is used throughout the processing of gold ore.

RICHARD GUTIERREZ, BAN Toxics: Mercury is an immediate public health issue because it’s toxic. It’s one of the most potent neurotoxins out there.

P.J. TOBIA: Demitria Durano owns a few of these processing centers in the Philippines. She’s worked with mercury for much of her life.

DEMITRIA DURANO, Ore Processor (through interpreter): Some of my operators will really get sick because when they open the tumblers, they inhale. If there is mercury, it really stinks. They don’t wear masks.  And that’s why most of my operators get sick. They look pale and their skin turns yellow.

P.J. TOBIA: While it destroys the body, mercury is a cheap way to protect the gold from dirt and rock particles.

DEMITRIA DURANO (through interpreter): Sometimes, I feel so weak afterwards. I always wash right away. I wash my hands with soapy water.  But I will really get a headache. I will really feel badly.

P.J. TOBIA: Richard Gutierrez is the founder and director of BAN Toxics, an organization in the Philippines dedicated to preventing the trade of toxic chemicals.

RICHARD GUTIERREZ: It’s a heavy metal.  It is persistent.  Therefore, it bioaccumulates in the food chain. It bioaccumulates in the seafood.  So, it’s poisoning. It’s contaminating a major protein source for a lot of people.  It also travels further, so it has the capability of global transport. The contamination is not restricted in one site.

P.J. TOBIA: The final step in processing the gold begins with a spark. The tiny balls of mercury-encased gold dust are blasted with an acetylene torch, releasing vapors that are pure poison. Unprotected workers breath it all in.  The danger reaches well beyond here.

Charlita Balwiss spent nearly a decade as a health inspector in the town of Diwalwal, Philippines, where small-scale gold mining is a way of life. She became ill from the mercury smoke.

CHARLITA BALWISS, Philippine Health Inspector (through interpreter): Our health center was on the top floor of a building, near a chimney from one of the gold melting shops. It was too close to our center.  Even if we just stood up, we really inhaled it.

P.J. TOBIA: She estimates 50 percent of the townspeople have shown symptoms of mercury poisoning.

CHARLITA BALWISS (through interpreter): Most of the people who cook or melt the gold felt tremors. But it wasn’t just the workers, also just people who were passersby, because they would inhale the smoke. So we can’t just say that only the one who cooks or melts the gold is the one that’s been contaminated or infected, also anyone who lived nearby, even if they weren’t working with mercury.

P.J. TOBIA: Even when the symptoms subside, the heavy metal stays in the system and will likely maim or kill.

RICHARD GUTIERREZ: You do have deformities, children born with — that are disfigured. These types of symptoms, especially the more benign ones or the unseen ones, make screening for mercury poisoning very difficult, especially for health workers that are untrained and are unfamiliar with the symptoms.

P.J. TOBIA: Dealers keep a steady supply of mercury available in mining towns. This woman runs a shop in Sulawesi, Indonesia. She says that customers come day and night for the mercury she supplies.

WOMAN (through interpreter): In one week, we sell one tank. Each tank is 34 kilos. So, in a month, we can sell more than 120 kilos.

P.J. TOBIA: Five years ago, she started selling mercury illegally.  She was arrested, but not jailed. Instead, the police put her in touch with a legal supplier.  Now they do business together. It’s an example of how the local authorities are complicit in this deadly trade.

WOMAN (through interpreter): This was made in Spain. Previously, there was some from America.

P.J. TOBIA: When asked about mercury’s health effects on her community, she just shrugs.

WOMAN (through interpreter): What can I do? I’m here to make a living also. We need it, others need it, which means all of us here need each other. Mercury supports this chain.

P.J. TOBIA: The end of that chain is often China or India. Some of it ends up in local markets, like this gold shop in Borneo.

Gold from artisanal mines makes up only 10 percent to 15 percent of the four-ton global gold market, according to analysts at Thomson Reuters. But after it’s processed, gold is impossible to trace.

L.J. Johnson is the director of International Labor Office in the Philippines.

L.J. JOHNSON, Director, Philippine International Labor Office: Because whether we’re talking gold or silver that we mine, it’s a bulk commodity. So when we ask consumers, are you sure that ring that you’re wearing, the earring, the necklaces are free from child labor, that’s more difficult, but it’s up to consumers to start making that choice again.

P.J. TOBIA: In a tragic irony, there is a cheaper, easily available and even more efficient alternative to using mercury when processing gold.  It’s borax, commonly found in household cleaning products. But Gutierrez of BAN Toxics says it’s only being used in a few Philippine communities.

RICHARD GUTIERREZ: The utilization of borax at the refining stage to improve gold quality, so that when they sell it to the mercury — to the gold buyers, they get more money in return. There is an existing community of miners that have adopted it.

P.J. TOBIA: But change comes slowly with these old methods and their young victims.

RICHARD GUTIERREZ: Introducing alternatives to communities is much trickier than it sounds. It’s not just about planting a technology in front of them and telling them, this makes your job easier, this gives you more money.

P.J. TOBIA: Even if the problem of mercury pollution and poisoning is solved, Duku and Yoyo will continue to mine for gold, probably for the rest of their lives, as long as poverty persists, and gold dust can help put food on the table.

This is P.J. Tobia for the PBS NewsHour.

GWEN IFILL: You can find links to more of Larry C. Price’s work for the Pulitzer Center on our Web site, including photo essays, a podcast and an e-book on gold mining issues around the world.