Here's something which no magazine will publish lest they lose all the advertisements from jewellery houses ;-)
Lust for the yellow metal has made men do great things: to earn, to steal, and to kill. Maybe you would lose your stomach for gold if you knew the disastrous effect it has on the environment and on the health of the miners. It may come as a surprise to many that a metal, which in India has always been considered auspicious and associated with prosperity, comes with such terrifying side effects.
Artisan mining is an important economic sector in many developing countries. For lack of adequate resources and training, these artisan miners adopt cheap but hazardous methods of mining and processing of gold, which prove to be disastrous to the local environment and to their own health. These miners do not conform to mining laws and regulations and escape tight government control. African gold mines such as those in the Migori gold belt are typical examples.
Mining involves open-cut and underground operations, then crushing and panning. Waste rock is dumped in heaps, leaving the mining area with contaminated streams, disturbed vegetation, open trenches and pits filled with water which are a haven for mosquitoes, making the area gullible to all kinds of diseases and infections.
Air pollution within mine workings is common. Carbon monoxide emissions from water pumps often claim many lives. Also, when around 30-50 people work underground at the same time, there isn’t enough air to breathe. The mines also become a breeding ground for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. The silica dust, which is generated during the process, causes diseases like silicosis, affecting even young children who are engaged in ore crushing and panning. Miners often suffer from fatal respiratory diseases.
Minerals consisting of metals like lead, which are found in gold-sulphide deposits, are usually stable under natural conditions, but on mining they are broken down due to exposure to oxygen and water, causing much harm. Mercury, which is used to amalgamate gold, causes heavy metal poisoning. Such poisoning often goes undiagnosed because its symptoms are masked by microbial infections, malnutrition, poor living conditions and health care.
Evidences of water pollution are inevitably found near most mines. The water in the streams becomes highly acidic because of acid drainage. Water is also contaminated because of dumping of alkaline batteries, which are used underground in torches, causing the water to become highly alkaline. With the advent of cyanide mining, mines are increasingly dribbling cyanide and mercury into rivers all over the world. People use the water for domestic purposes. It also indirectly affects because people consume fish bred in these waters. The effect can reach beyond the local community as fish, which is bred in many East African Rivers, contaminated with toxic elements from mining, is exported to many countries. Far reaching impact indeed!
Many miners also suffer because of improper work conditions, lack of proper facilities such as drinking water and latrines. Weak mine areas may also cave in, causing loss of lives.
The effect on the environment is quite serious. Plant growth in the area is inhibited because of acid drainage and the release of toxic compounds during mining and processing. During gold rushes, the miners tax the energy resources in the environment, cutting down scores of trees for firewood and as lumber to hold up weak mine areas. This leads to deforestation and soil erosion.
The natural habitat is destroyed leaving many birds and animals homeless, making a significant contribution to imbalance in nature, leading to extinction of many species et al. Tons of topsoil are being churned up and whole mountains are being blown up. With cyanide heap mining, mining is done with output as little as 1 part to 3,000,000. Cyanide leach mining (such as that used in Timbarra Mines in Australia) makes it economical to blow up a whole mountain and lace it with cyanide in order to extract 1 ounce of gold from every 75 tons of ore!
The cost of a gram of gold does not end with the 500 and odd rupees, which you shell out to display the glitter. The social/ environmental costs are much higher. A gram of gold comes at the cost of tons of soil, and the lives of many miners, trees, plants and animals. Remember this the next time you invest in gold!