Amateur gold miners use toxic mercury

Vientiane (dpa) – Independent gold miners are contaminating the

air and water in Laos with the mercury used for extracting the

precious metal, a news report said Thursday. 

   The state-run daily newspaper Vientiane Times said prospectors

dig up the soil in rivers and streams and then use mercury, a highly

toxic metal, to separate the gold in a burning process.

   “Mercury is not only poisonous to humans and animals, but it is

also dangerous for the environment,” said Alavanh Bounyapalom, chief

of the mining department’s environmental audit sector at the Ministry

of Energy and Mines.

   He said many of the miners burn the mercury in their kitchens,

putting their families and themselves at risk.

   “They burn in the kitchen because they are afraid that the gold

will be stolen when people from nearby houses see it,” Alavanh said.

“If they inhale a lot of this smoke, it can be fatal.”

   According to the ministry, amateur gold miners are common in every 

province, but Xieng Khouang, Vientiane and Luang Prabang

provinces have the largest concentrations.

   Alavanh said the mercury gives off toxic gas when burned or even

just left exposed to the air. The gas can damage the nervous system

when inhaled, and make the fish in the streams unsafe to eat, he

added.

   “They don’t care about their health or the health of others,”

Alavanh said. “This is sheer greed and is just about finding gold.”