Consumer demand for gold and the poor economy in many developing countries have led to an increase in small-scale gold mining throughout the world.
For small-scale gold miners in the Philippines and Indonesia, separating gold from rock and sand is primitive, tedious and often dangerous work. Miners, including teenagers and children, are often exposed to mercury, which is used to separate gold particles from crushed rock and sludge. Mercury can be absorbed through the skin, ingested in food and water, or inhaled from vapors; it is highly toxic. It can cause a host of physical problems, including nerve and brain damage. Babies who have been exposed to mercury in utero may be born with brain damage and vision and hearing loss.
In compressor mining—the most dangerous of all mining practices—older teenagers and slight young men descend in deep pits filled to the surface with muddy water. Breathing through a tube attached to a compressor on the surface, they work in the watery darkness, filling bags of ore that are hauled to the surface. Sometimes miners die when the sides of the pits collapse, and they are buried alive.
Runoff containing mercury pollutes the ground water and the rivers, ultimately contaminating fish and other food sources. Environmental groups continue to promote newer and safer methods to separate gold from ore using biodegradable compounds such as common laundry booster, Borax. But the method is more time consuming and complicated than the traditional methods that use mercury.
Child miners risk injury and death and face long-term health problems caused by back-breaking labor, exposure to dust and chemicals and, worst of all, mercury poisoning. Child labor is against the law in the Philippines and Indonesia, but is nonetheless rampant—it is often the parents who are putting their own children to risk. The U.N. International Labor Organization is trying to eliminate child labor, but without the support of local officials, it is an almost impossible task.