The Problem of Child Gold Mining

Published Sept. 28, 2018

By Ed Rutkowski

In 2011, the price of gold reached an all-time high of more than $1,900 an ounce. The spike in value hinted at darker consequences: the trickle-down effects of monetary incentives on artisanal gold miners in the developing world, where children often work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. The price of gold has since settled at approximately $1,200 an ounce, but artisanal gold mining continues to flourish, producing as much as 20 percent of the world’s new gold metal, according to one estimate.

“The value of gold is so high today that it’s driving these small gold mining operations in many parts of the world,” said David Goldsmith, who spoke about the hazards of gold mining and its effects on children at IOHA 2018 on Sept. 25. “It’s a way for many people from rural areas to support their families.”

Goldsmith, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., based his presentation in part on his observations of children miningw gold during a recent trip to the Philippines funded by the Fulbright Specialist Program. In the Philippines, Goldsmith said, children spend many hours a day diving in water and returning to the surface with bags of ore, which is dumped into buckets and dried to obtain gold. A Human Rights Watch feature on the Philippine artisanal mining industry in 2015 describes the use of children to process ore with mercury, a highly toxic metal.

“Exposure to mercury fumes is a serious cause of neurological issues,” Goldsmith said. “It has a lifelong potential to damage pediatric brains and be a serious threat to learning capabilities.”

The problem extends far beyond the Philippines. In Africa, children between the ages of 8 and 16 are used in dryland gold mining, Goldsmith said. He showed an image of a child around ten or eleven years old emerging from a mine shaft that was supported with sawn timbers to guard against collapse.

In 2010, the Ministry of Health in Nigeria formed an international team of health experts to investigate reports of widespread child lead poisoning in the state of Zamfara. More than 100 children died of acute lead poisoning between March and June 2010. Investigators determined that the children were exposed to unsafe amounts of lead while mining gold.

Approximately 1 million children younger than 16 work as gold miners throughout the world, Goldsmith said. These children suffer from overexertion, lung ailments, skin lesions, headaches, joint problems, hearing and vision loss, and other health problems.

The problem of child gold mining resists easy solutions. The mining sites are small and therefore difficult to regulate, and simply outlawing child labor in gold mines won’t address the core problem of poverty, Goldsmith said. Around 140 countries have signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a treaty that commits governments to protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury exposure, but the treaty has done little to limit the use of mercury in gold mining.

One potential solution is to implement a certification scheme in gold mining like the Kimberley Process used by the diamond industry. The intent of the Kimberley Process is to provide assurance that the profits from the sale of certified diamonds are not used to fund armed conflict. Goldsmith suggested that a similar process could be used to designate gold products that were not produced by child labor.

His most immediate concern, however, is to get more occupational health and safety professionals involved in the issue of child gold mining. “It’s dreadful that we have kids mining these things,” he said.

Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.