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Mercury Poisoning Among Indonesian Mining Communities

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Ipan is 16 months old and suffering his third seizure of the morning. His head is too large for his body and his legs are as thin as sticks. He arches his back, and his limbs stiffen. He cries out in pain. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Ipan's mother, Fatimah, tries to comfort her son but there’s not much she can do. A dukun, or shaman, says his soul was invaded by the spirit of the monkey, bat, and octopus. On his advice, Fatimah and her husband Nursah changed the boy's name from Iqbal to Ipan and fed him tiny rice balls mixed with octopus. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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A miner pours a pan of mercury into a smaller container at a gold processing facility. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Hasan Zainal, a shopkeeper who sells hardware and groceries in this small mining community displays vials of mercury she sells to area miners. Technically, against the law, mercury is nonetheless openly sold on the black market. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Mercury is poured from a gold pan into a small jar during a gold processing session in a backyard ball mill. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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In Indonesia, more than 1 million small-scale miners scratch out an illegal living digging for gold in at least 850 hotspots. Child labor is common in the gold fields, with boys as young as 8 digging the ore and as young as 12 burning the mercury-gold amalgam. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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30-year-old miner Rizki adds mercury to a pan of gold ore. At right is his eight-year-old daughter, Ismawati, who watches the process. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Noisy tumblers known as ball mills operate almost continually in mining communities, often next to homes, grinding the ore along with mercury and water to extract the gold. As the tumblers rattle and spin, the rock breaks down and flecks of gold bind to the mercury. Afterwards, the miners drain off the liquid and recover some excess mercury, but much of it becomes vapor and pollutes the air or flows onto the ground and into waterways. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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In some villages, families use mercury-laced mine waste as the foundation for their homes or to surface their yards and walkways. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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At the end of the gold extraction process, a mercury pellet containing gold is heated with a torch. This vaporizes the mercury, leaving behind pure gold. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Sonia Buftheim, a chemist working with BaliFokus, a non-profit NGO dedicated to identifying locations in Indonesia where mercury pollution is acute, measures the airborne mercury level in a gold processing facility. Noisy tumblers known as ball mills operate almost continually in mining communities, often next to homes, grinding the ore along with mercury and water to extract the gold. As the tumblers rattle and spin, the rock breaks down and flecks of gold bind to the mercury. Afterwards, the miners drain off the liquid and recover some excess mercury, but much of it becomes vapor and pollutes the air or flows onto the ground and into waterways. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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A young girl washes her hair with the contaminated runoff from a nearby gold mining operations. Doctors identified 177 cases of suspected mercury poisoning on the islands of Java, Lombok and Sulawesi, says Yuyun Ismawati, a co-founder of the Indonesian environmental NGO, BaliFokus. The figure includes 57 children. 59 of those identified during medical screening later died. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder of the environmental NGO BaliFokus, entertains 6-year-old Fikri by blowing soap bubbles. Fikri was born with various physical and cognitive abnormalities that doctors suspect are associated with mercury poisoning. Both his parents worked as small-scale gold miners and Fikri's mothers worked around ball mills during her pregnancy. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Mercury poisoning is “a serious health problem” in Indonesia, says Stephan Bose-O'Reilly, a pediatrician and environmental health expert at the University of Munich. Here, O'Reilly examines two-year-old Rifky Aldiansyah for symptoms of mercury poisoing. Rifky was in good health until his third month when he began losing motor control. Rifky's mother, right, lived in Cisungsang, a nearby mining community. She said her home there was surrounded by gold processing centers. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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In Indonesia, more than 1 million small-scale miners scratch out an illegal living digging for gold in at least 850 hotspots, says Yuyun Ismawati, a 2009 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, who has conducted extensive research on illegal mining. Here, Ismawati, comforts 15-year-old Rini, a suspected victim of mercury poisoning. Rini has severe paralysis and cannot walk. She has limited use of her limbs. She became sick at two years of age and doctors suspect mercury poisoning from the nearby gold mines and processing facilities that are common in the area. Rini's mother works in a gold camp during her pregnancy. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Nyimas, 9, lies on a pillow inside a small home in this mining community of 1500. Nyimas began showing symptoms of hydrocephalus at three months and underwent surgery at seven months to relive brain pressure. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Pause holds her child Nyimas, 9, inside their small home. Nyimas has limited cognitive ability and must be cared for around the clock. Her mother worked around gold mines and processing facilities during pregnancy and doctors suspect exposure at that time contributed to Nyimas's condition. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Pause bathes her daughter, Nyimas, 9, outside their small home. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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15-year-old Rini is carried by her uncle, Maji, 67, and her mother Hannah, 48, to a bedroom inside their three-room house. Rini has severe paralysis and cannot walk. She has limited use of her limbs. She became sick at two years of age and doctors suspect mercury poisoning from the nearby gold mines and processing facilities that are common in the area. Rini's mother works in a gold camp during her pregnancy. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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15-year-old Rini rests in a bedroom inside her three-room house. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Three-year-old Zaskia plays in the living room of her home. Zaikai was born with a congenital deformity and is missing several fingers and toes. Doctors suspect the birth defect is related to high levels of mercury Zaikai's mother was exposed to during pregnancy. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

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Resti Fauzia, 2, has never spoken a word. She stopped walking at 18 months, says her mother, Ocih. She can’t grasp objects or stand without help. When she sleeps, she has seizures. Her family lives in the village of Pangkal Jaya near Pongkor Mountain, about 60 miles southwest of Jakarta. Illegal miners have been digging for gold there since at least 2000. More than 10,000 miners work there today. Image by Larry Price. Indonesia, 2016.

Where there is small-scale gold mining, there is mercury—and often mercury contamination. The Republic of Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, is home to some of the globe's richest gold deposits—and some of the world's worst mercury contamination. Over the last two decades, as gold production has exploded, more than a million small-scale gold miners have joined the large multi-national corporations working in Indonesia. These small operators use mercury to extract gold from ore, often working in their homes and backyards where they expose themselves, their families, and their unborn children to extremely high concentrations of the toxic heavy metal.

Doctors working with the environmental group BaliFokus Foundation have documented dozens upon dozens of suspected mercury poisoning cases in remote mining communities. The group’s co-founder Yuyun Ismawati terms the ongoing mercury contamination “a public health emergency.” For the affected residents, the consequences are horrific, lifelong, and often deadly.