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Going for the Gold Sends Mercury Down the River

Story at-a-glance -

  • Illegal gold mining in Peru has increased significantly since 2000, where high gold prices continue to attract laborers
  • High levels of mercury were detected both near the mining operations and hundreds of kilometers downstream
  • Other leading sources of environmental mercury pollution include coal-fired power plants and the use of dental amalgam fillings

By Dr. Mercola

Contrary to the popular image of "panning" for gold, during the California Gold Rush of the 1800s, gold miners used high-pressure water cannons to erode hillsides, then ran the sediment through sluice boxes to find the gold.

However, this wasn't the end of the damage caused by this destructive mining. Mercury was also widely used, because it helped the gold to become easily separated from the surrounding rocks and gravel.

Today, more than 100 years later, areas of California are still dealing with the tons of leftover mercury pollution. In the Yuba River Valley in Northern California, for instance, large floods cause the mercury-contaminated sediment to travel downriver about once a decade – leading to spikes in mercury in the San Francisco Bay.1

But it's not only the historic use of mercury in gold mining that's a problem. Small-scale mining operations in Asia, Africa and South America still use mercury to mine for gold. It's illegal and highly toxic to the workers and the environment – and it's now estimated to be responsible for one-third of mercury pollution worldwide.2

Widespread Mercury Pollution Revealed in Peru

Duke University researchers conducted the first systematic study of mercury pollution related to gold mining in Peru's Madre de Dios region.3 Mining in the area has increased significantly since 2000, where high gold prices continue to attract laborers – despite the mercury toxicity risks.

Political and social unrest has ensued, as aside from the mercury pollution, the mining is responsible for widespread deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

The Duke study revealed high levels of mercury concentrations in river sediment and fish, not only near the mining operations but also hundreds of kilometers downstream.

The researchers noted:

"This study demonstrates that communities located hundreds of kilometers downstream of ASGM [artisanal and small-scale gold mining] activity, including children and indigenous populations who may not be involved in mining, are at risk of dietary mercury exposure that exceed acceptable body burdens."

The international treaty, named the Minamata Convention on Mercury, requires the phasing out of many mercury-containing products, including thermometers, by 2020, and also calls for an end to all mercury mining within 15 years.

But this may not be soon enough, or powerful enough to combat the widespread illegal mining operations. The treaty takes effect only after its ratification by 50 nations, which can take three or four years.

In the meantime, it's estimated that 10 million to 20 million miners around the world use mercury for gold mining (and artisanal and small-scale gold mining is the largest use of mercury in the world).4 As it stands, Peru does not restrict mercury imports even though it's estimated that 95 percent of it is used for unregulated mining.5

What's the Largest Source of Mercury Contamination in the US?

Mercury pollution is a growing concern around the globe. In the US (and worldwide), coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution, emitting about 33 tons of mercury into the environment each year (and contributing to almost half of all mercury emissions).6

When coal, which is naturally contaminated with mercury, is burned for electricity, the mercury is released into the air. Large boilers and heaters powered by coal represent the next largest source of mercury emissions, followed by steel production and incinerators, including for cremation.

It may sound surprising, but mercury fillings in the teeth of someone who dies actually pose a risk to the living. Emissions from the combustion of mercury fillings during cremation are a significant contaminator of air, waterways, soil, wildlife, and food.

Seven to nine metric tons of mercury per year escapes into the atmosphere during cremations, and it is estimated that, left unchecked, crematoria will be the largest single cause of mercury pollution by 2020.

Sweden now mandates that all mercury fillings be removed prior to cremation for this very reason, and The European Environment Bureau is calling for crematoria to be included in new pollution-control standards for incinerating waste.7

There are even more sources of mercury pollution than this, sadly. For instance, did you know that, in the US, dentist offices are the largest source of mercury in wastewater entering publicly owned treatment works? Dental amalgam, a tooth filling material that is 50 percent mercury—not silver—continues to be the leading intentional use of mercury in the US.

What Are YOUR Most Likely Routes of Mercury Exposure?

If you're reading this, you're probably fortunate enough to not be exposed to the direct effects of mercury from gold mining. However, you may very well have amalgam fillings in your teeth, eaten mercury-contaminated seafood or received a mercury-containing vaccine. These are among the most common sources of mercury exposure for Americans.

Dental offices generate a variety of amalgam waste that gets flushed down the drain, unless dentists implement best-management practices and dentists install and properly maintain amalgam separators. Such practices will collect:

  • Scrap amalgam
  • Used, leaking, or unusable amalgam capsules
  • Amalgam captured in chairside traps and vacuum pump screens
  • "Contact amalgam," including teeth with amalgam restorations

There's a growing global consensus that dental amalgam is a considerable source of environmental mercury pollution. Several studies show that about 50 percent of the mercury entering municipal wastewater treatment plants can be traced back to dental amalgam waste.

This mercury waste amounts to about 3.7 TONS each year! An estimated 90 percent is captured by the treatment plants generally via sewage sludge8 – some of which ends up in landfills, while other portions are incinerated (thereby polluting the air) or applied as agricultural fertilizer (polluting your food), or seep into waterways (polluting fish and wildlife).

In the infographic below, you can see that the mercury used globally for dental fillings is greater than that used for other major industrial uses, including lighting, electronic devices, and more.

Dental Filling Infographic Preview

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The Dangers of Mercury

Mercury is extremely tenacious once in the air, water, and soil; levels gradually increase over time, as it accumulates. Once in your body, mercury, a neurotoxin, can harm your nervous system to differing degrees, depending on how much mercury you've accumulated in your body. At above average doses, brain functions such as reaction time, judgment, and language can be impaired. At very high exposures, mercury can affect your ability to walk, speak, think, and see clearly.

One 2012 study evaluating the effects of mercury on cognition in otherwise healthy adults found that those with blood mercury levels below 5 µg/L had the best cognitive functions.8 Mild impairment was evident at blood mercury levels of 5 to 15 µg/L and above 15 µg/L, cognition was significantly impaired. If you have amalgam fillings, there is overwhelming evidence showing mercury is easily released in the form of vapor each time you eat, drink, brush your teeth, or otherwise stimulate your teeth.

These mercury vapors readily pass through your cell membranes, across your blood-brain barrier, and into your central nervous system, where they can cause psychological, neurological, and immunological problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) also reports the known toxic effects of mercury exposure, including in its inhaled vapor form, stating:9

"Mercury is highly toxic and harmful to health. Approximately 80% of inhaled mercury vapor is absorbed in the blood through the lungs, causing damages to lungs, kidneys and the nervous, digestive, respiratory and immune systems. Health effects from excessive mercury exposure include tremors, impaired vision and hearing, paralysis, insomnia, emotional instability, developmental deficits during fetal development, and attention deficit and developmental delays during childhood."

Help Put an End to Mercury Pollution

On a global scale, the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) recommends urging your representatives to support Peruvian efforts to take action through legislation and development assistance. While the US prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been taken illegally, the same is not true for minerals like gold. As ACA notes, similar legislation should be implemented for minerals, which would make illegally mined gold from Peru illegal to import into the US.10

On a smaller scale, does your dentist use mercury fillings? On any patient? If so, it's time that he/she and you had a talk. Let's face it: the dental amalgam industry -- manufacturers and pro-mercury dentists -- are among the biggest mercury polluters in America. It's time for every American consumer (1) to insist on mercury-free dental fillings, and (2) to spend his or her hard-earned dollars on the non-polluting dentist, the mercury-free dentistry.

The Campaign for Mercury-Free Dentistry, the project organized and led by Charlie Brown of Consumers for Dental Choice, has made amazing progress toward mercury-free dentistry. But there's still hard work ahead as Consumers for Dental Choice is now running education programs for consumers, holding training sessions for dentists, and organizing briefings for governments around the world. You can help stop dental mercury today! Will you please consider a donation to Consumers for Dental Choice, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advocating mercury-free dentistry? Donations are tax-exempt and can be made online at Checks can be mailed to:

Consumers for Dental Choice
316 F St., N.E., Suite 210
Washington DC 20002

For updates on the movement for mercury-free dentistry, join Consumers for Dental Choice on Facebook or sign up to receive their newsletter. You can also take a stand with us and tell the EPA not to let polluting dentists off the hook. It's time to stop dental mercury dumping.

Help Support Mercury-Free Dentistry

The use of Amalgam for fillings not only pollutes our mouths, it also pollutes our environment. We need to end the use of dental amalgam – a primitive, pre-Civil War pollutant that leads to cracked teeth – for three reasons:

  1. The Minamata Convention on Mercury is the game-changer for dental amalgam. Each nation that signs this comprehensive treaty against mercury pollution – now numbering over 100, including the United States – commits itself to scaling down dental mercury without delay.
  2. Consumers for Dental Choice, who spearheads the campaign against amalgam, brings the Minamata Convention home. Commissioning a Zogby poll, they issued a scathing indictment of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for covering up amalgam's mercury from American parents and consumers – and for putting the US government out of compliance with the pledge it made at Minamata.
  3. Your financial support for Consumers for Dental Choice is now needed. Working with talented environmental, consumer, and health leaders, Consumers for Dental Choice is launching phase out campaigns in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Resources to Help You Find a Biological Dentist

The following organizations can help you to find a mercury-free, biological dentist:

Together, Let's Help Charlie Brown and Consumers for Dental Choice Get to the Finish Line

Let's help Consumers for Dental Choice get the funding it deserves. I have found few NGOs as effective, and none as efficient, as Consumers for Dental Choice. Its small team has led the charge on six continents -- including ours!

Please make a donation to help Consumers for Dental Choice give dental consumers, amalgam victims, and parents a strong voice against amalgam.

Mercury Free Dentistry

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