Peace Care Blog

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“A Gold Rush in Senegal”


We have invited a guest post from an incredible Peace Corps Volunteer today.  While his work is not directly related to our purpose here, it obviously has significant health implications for the region…

Written by:  Patrick Linn, Peace Corps Volunteer, Saraya, Senegal

It is well known that the value of gold has risen during the last ten years and prescient investors have reaped great profits during this time. A lesser known story of wealth creation related to high gold prices is that they have motivated the development of large and small scale mining sites globally. Kedougou, Senegal contains West Africa’s largest and one of its most recently exploited gold deposits—the Sabodala vein. The streets of tiny Kedougou towns buzz as motorcycles driven by young miners cruise by.  And ordinary conversations in these towns, with teachers, farmers and doctors alike tend toward mining—one artisanal miner in Sabodala is said to have found a 2 kilogram nugget. Gold fever is in the air.

Since 2008, major international mining companies have begun mining in earnest across the district of Saraya, Kedougou and these companies have committed to employing workers from surrounding communities and have funded aspects of the local health infrastructure. A far larger employer of local workers, however, is the unregulated scattering of traditional mining sites, called djouras, which are attracting tens of thousands of young men to seek their fortunes, or just the price of a motorcycle, panning for gold.

Though large-scale mining is often associated with environmental woe, traditional mines seem to pose greater environmental and public health risks—they upend and expose land while providing no environmental remediation, and miners burn large amounts of mercury that is released daily into the air, water and land. This mercury when burned in a hut can surpass WHO recommended maximum mercury exposure guidelines by forty-thousand times and can cause quick and unremediable organ and nerve damage, especially among young children.

In response to local and international concerns about mercury emissions, a team of Peace Corps volunteers in the Saraya district is working with the local health district, medical students in Israel and the US Department of State to educate miners and their families about health risks posed by mercury, and how they can use a simple and practical pipe retort to capture evaporated mercury while processing ore.

The process of traditional, or artisanal, gold mining is as follows: ore, usually quartz—silica dusted with a tiny amount of gold—is chiseled out of a well-like hole; the rock is hauled in rice sacks to a miner’s hut where it is broken by hammer into pebbles and this gravel is then milled into stone flour. The stone flour is spread on a carpet on a tilted table, called a vannage, where it is rinsed with well water—lighter silica floats over the carpet and heavier metals fall out and stick in the carpet. The carpet is then washed in a laundry bucket or food bowl and the silt and metal left in the bowl are mixed with a dose of approximately 20 grams of mercury. Gold and mercury bond forming an amalgam, and this amalgam, about the size of a peanut, is burned in an open pan in miners’ or gold buyers’ huts. When the amalgam is heated, mercury evaporates and gold of about 80% purity is left in the open bowl. This gold is sold to black market dealers who often transport the valuable stuff to Bamako, Mali where it enters international markets. The Peace Corps mercury project team avoids taking a stance on the legality of mining and transporting black market gold, but they take issue with the unnecessary exposure of families and entire communities to toxic, airborne mercury. For instance, the mining camps of Douta and Sambrambougou are each home to thousands of transient miners who lack access to sanitation, live in tightly spaced, flimsy huts made of fencing and who burn mercury each night. The mercury burning often occurs in huts in the presence of families, pregnant women and young children, people in life stages when toxins can cause maximum harm.

The Peace Corps mercury reduction project has been in development for more than a year, and in August the team began the project by surveying eight mining communities, looking at general and social demographics, occupations, behaviors and beliefs regarding mercury. The results of this survey were used to inform the training of a network of community health workers (CHWs) who gave public awareness talks in their communities about how to lessen the risks of working with mercury in ore processing, especially by using the closed-system retort pipe. The CHWs also trained peer-to-peer educators who were each given one retort and tasked to work one-on-one with other miners in their communities to increase usage of the retorts. This pilot project was scheduled to last about one month and a half but went slightly over schedule. With it now complete, however, the team is preparing to deploy this model, including baseline and end of project surveys, in all of the large mining communities in Kedougou, beginning in January 2013.

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