African countries move to protect children exposed to mercury | Africa | DW | 22.08.2017
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African countries move to protect children exposed to mercury

Gold mining in African countries takes place in unlicensed or small scale mines, where thousands of children work in hazardous conditions and end up developing respiratory health problems.

African countries are in the process of coming up with better policies to protect women and children who are exposed to mercury. This is after the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, which is aimed at protecting the lives of people and the environment from toxic substances, took effect on 16th August 2017.

Under this treaty, governments are required to put in place control measures in polluting industries, such as artisanal gold mining. While looking for gold, miners are exposed to mercury poison because they have to process the ore with the toxic substance, risking brain damage and life long disability.

The majority of the children are aged between 10 and 17 years.

A child miner looks for gold

Human Rights Watch claims children work in unstable gold mining pits that could collapse at any moment

Human Rights Watch's associate director in the children's rights division, Juliane Kippenberg, noted that those who are suffering from mercury poisoning need to be protected

"The Minamata Convention strengthens governments' obligations to protect people's rights to health and to a healthy environment from this toxic substance," Kippenberg said. "Now that the Mercury Convention is in effect, governments have to walk the talk and put the treaty into practice." 

A total of 35 African countries are parties to this convention. The treaty obliges member countries to promote mercury-free gold processing methods and take special measures to protect vulnerable populations including children and women of child bearing age from exposure. It also puts an end to particularly harmful practices in gold processing, such as burning the mercury with gold in residential areas, a process known as gold amalgam.

A gold dealer showing a piece of mercurxy amalgam in his hand

The number of children working in gold mines remains a major concern

Member countries continue to commit to improve health care services for populations affected by exposure to mercury. The treaty also regulates other important industries such as mercury use in products and manufacturing processes, emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Effects of mercury on human health

According to the World Health Organization, mercury is considered to be one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. Exposure to it, in even small amounts, may cause serious health problems and threatens the development of the child in the uterus and early life.

The inhalation of mercury vapor can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested.

Neurological and behavioral disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction.

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