Mercury pollution affects Guyanese workers

Guyana’s Mines Commissioner, Newell Dennision.
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Industrial action by staff at the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission has forced authorities to remove gold testing equipment from the compound after dozens of staffers had tested positive for elevated levels of mercury pollution in their blood officials said Tuesday, April 24.

The Guyana Gold Board which buys hundreds of thousands of troy ounces of gold from miners has for decades shared a compound with the mines commission.

Its laboratory which tests gold for purity levels using mercury and other methods has been spewing the deadly substance into nearby mines commission offices during the period.

Staff at the commission said they had been unaware that equipment which should protect them from pollution had been malfunctioning for a few months, leaving them exposed to deadly vapors from the burning of gold while testing for quality.

Dozens who had complained of feeling unwell and were tested came back with elevated levels of mercury pollution in the systems and have been sent on extended vacation and rest leave Mines Commissioner Newell Dennision said.

He said authorities at the weekend removed equipment belonging to the gold assayer’s lab to meet worker demands but many remained off the job Tuesday after first downing tools on Friday.

“We are looking at ways to make our workers feel comfortable,” Dennision said.

Gold is Guyana’s largest single foreign exchange earning industry but is expected to slide back to second when the country’s oil and gas sector gets kicking after 2020 as actual production will commence by then.

Mercury is used to separate gold from ore during mining. Most miners who work a plethora of land and open pit land mines in the country’s vast interior think this is the most efficient method of doing so as up to 80 percent of gold particles in ore is recovery from this process. Authorities have urged them to switch to shaking tables and other mercury free systems but support for these have been slow — almost non existent.

This is despite the fact that Guyana has long signed on to international conventions to cease using mercury because of its deadly health effects on humans and damage to the environment including marine life when miners dump tainted residue into waterways.

Officials are particularly concerned about higher levels of mercury used by miners from neighboring Brazil who work in Guyana, contending that such large amounts are unnecessary and could only harm the environment.

Native Amerindian groups have complained about the fact that animals, which they have hunted for food for centuries are no longer seen in areas where gold is mined and hunters have to trek long distances to find animals for families.

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