At Lolgorian in Kilgoris, Narok County, Irene Misera toils and moils in the mines searching for the gold ore that will put some coins in her pocket.
Once found, she uses mercury amalgam to speed up the process of extracting gold from its ore.
Irene has been at it for three years and though she is none the richer, the effects of mercury are visible on her now dark hands, which bear fingers with large cracks. Her nails stopped growing too and she suspects it also has something to do with the mercury.
“I know it is dangerous to touch mercury with my bare hands, but what do I do? I need the gold to sell and put some food on the table. I’ll deal with my health when it incapacitates me,” she says as she washes the ore she has collected.
While large-scale mines have replaced mercury, one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern, with more efficient and less environmentally damaging techniques, smaller-scale gold diggers continue to use it routinely.
And without safety gear (safety glasses, masks, gloves, helmets, gumboots and ear plugs to protect them from the loud noises emanating from the crushing machines) they expose themselves to grave health risks for a dime.
At the mine, where they take one day at a time, they get Sh100 or less every day because they only get very small amounts of gold (less than a gramme or a point in miner lingo).
Cecilia Nyanchera, who has worked in the mines for 20 years now, has respiratory problems characterised by chest pain and incessant coughing.
She suspects that her ailment comes from inhaling gold dust, but she is not about to give up her only source of income.
“My health has deteriorated over time, but I have a family to fend for. I don’t have an alternative source of income,” she says, wiping her brow in the hot sun.
Yusuf Kirimaiti, another miner, says that they have buried colleagues who died after being hit by falling objects in the mines.
“If we had protective gear, we would not have lost our colleagues. The magnitude of the injuries would have been much smaller,” he says.
To turn the tide on their fate, 500 miners teamed up and formed a committee to champion their rights. They have also registered their group, hoping that formalising it will help them attract funding from the government. Money which they will use to buy protective gear.
Ronald Matthew, a tourist who was visiting the adjacent Maasai Mara Game Reserve, was so touched by the miners’ plight, that he started a campaign dubbed “farmers on gold” to help raise funds for the miners from well-wishers in America, his country of birth.
Mr Matthew has already started distributing safety glasses, ear plugs and gloves to the miners and hopes that the Lolgorian gold mines will eventually get financial and technical support from the United Nations to eradicate mercury during gold mining and processing.
Kenya is one of the eight countries that will benefit from an initiative to eradicate mercury from gold mines. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), recently launched the Global Opportunities for Long-term Development of the Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining project worth Sh2.17 billion, to this end. The project is expected to devise mercury-free and environmentally-friendly methods of gold extraction.
Small-scale gold mining has thrived since the 19th century and is carried out in Homa Bay, Kakamega, Migori, Nandi, Narok, Siaya, Turkana, Vihiga and West Pokot counties.
Mercury and Health
Mercury is toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Inhalation of mercury vapour harms 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 behavioural disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds,” says WHO in its fact sheet on mercury.
Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Motor disorders are conditions of the nervous system that cause abnormal and involuntary movements.
Kidney effects have also been reported, ranging from increased protein in the urine to kidney failure.