Ghana’s Chance to Fix Its Mercury Problem

In a village in the Ashanti region last year, I met a small, shy 9-year-old boy—let’s call him Zachary. Zachary was not going school but working at a gold processing site. He told me how he collects the gold particles: “I spread the mercury with my hand. Then I tie it up with a rag…. Then I come out with gold and mercury. You put it in the fire and smoke it.”

Mercury is a liquid, shiny, fascinating substance. One of its amazing qualities is that it can attract gold particles and form a gold-mercury mix. If that mix, or amalgam, is burned, the mercury turns to gas and leaves behind pure raw gold. It is cheap and easy to mine gold this way.

But mercury is also dangerous. It attacks people’s central nervous system and can cause lifelong disability, including brain damage, and even death. Mercury is particularly harmful to children, as their bodies are still developing; the younger the child, the more serious the risk. Ghana, as one of the world’s top gold producers, with about one million people working in artisanal gold mining or galamsey, relies heavily on mercury for gold processing.

Up to now, the government of Ghana has allowed the use of mercury, putting its people at risk. But that is now changing.