Gold Mining and Its Toxic Byproducts Proliferate in the Americas

Silver was the precious metal at the foundation of the Roman Empire’s economy and since silver is often embedded in lead ore, lead was an abundant byproduct available throughout the empire. As such, Romans used lead in everything from plumbing pipes to wine to women’s makeup. In a sense, it was the high fructose corn syrup of its day: it was found in a plethora of common items and caused negative health effects. Lead poisoning is well documented in the Roman era and forever linked with that society’s fascination with silver. Surely, centuries later, humanity has learned its lesson.

But, of course, humanity has not learned its lesson and, as an interesting article in the Yale Environment 360 blog illustrates, society’s poor are bearing the brunt of our collective folly.

The article highlights the human health and environmental impacts of gold mining in Colombia and other Latin American countries. With currency markets weakening, precious metal prices have skyrocketed over the past two years as investors leery of buying U.S. dollars have instead thrown fistfuls of money at the gold market. As of today, gold is hovering around $1,400 per ounce; in June 1999 an ounce went for a paltry $250.

As a result of the profit potential, small-time mining operations have sprung up across such Latin American countries as Colombia. While lead is associated with silver extraction, mercury contamination (along with other toxins like cyanide and arsenic) goes hand-in-hand with mining and processing gold. The air in some Colombian mining regions contains mercury at levels 1,000 times above the threshold set by the World Health Organization. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include neuropathic disorders, hypertension, and, in acute cases, death.

Earthjustice’s partner organization in international law, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), has been working to limit mercury contamination from gold-mining operations in Latin America and is seeking to safeguard the health of communities at risk for exposure. Most recently, AIDA successfully persuaded the Mexican government to deny a permit for the Paredones Amarillos gold mine, which would have polluted a mountainous region in southern Baja California.

And in the U.S., recent Earthjustice litigation impelled EPA to issue tougher standards limiting mercury pollution from gold-mining companies with ore-processing facilities.

Maybe the real question here is why gold at all? Throughout human history, various items ranging from tally sticks to seashells to fiat currencies have served as money. So, why should a metal with limited practical application (you can’t knit a sweater or build your house with it) and negative human and environmental impacts be so valued by society? That’s not an easy question to answer, but, sadly, when all is said and done, gold may well go down as the most blatant example of commodity fetishism the world has ever known.