The international gold market is constantly hungry for more raw supply to use in products ranging from jewelry to electronics. That demand results in one of the filthiest industries in the world, as activist organization No Dirty Gold describes it: for perspective, they claim that a single wedding ring generates 20 tons of waste. Gold mining ravages the environment and communities, and in Southeast Asia, these effects are being felt particularly hard as gold mining accelerates with no safety checks in place to protect workers, the planet and communities where mining takes place.
If you have an image of gold mining as panning for gold in a clear California stream, or perhaps venturing deep into the Earth on a quaint railway, think again. Like other metals mining, gold mining today includes practices like open pit mining, in which massive gouges are cut into the Earth’s surface to access the precious metals inside with maximum efficiency — with heavy equipment, mining firms can move massive amounts of material in short periods of time. Small-scale mining also takes place, with people dangerously hand-mining in tunnels that occasionally cave in or fill with toxic gases, causing suffocation.
But it doesn’t stop there, because as yet, no one’s found a patch of solid gold to carve out like a pumpkin. Once raw material is removed, it needs to be processed, which involves massive amounts of heavy metals like mercury, along with large quantities of water. While gold mines are supposed to contain, clean and control their waste, many don’t, leading to contamination of water supplies with arsenic, mercury and cyanide. Those metals threaten community health, harm crops and wreak havoc on the natural environment, which is already disturbed thanks to the passage of heavy trucks, destruction of habitat and other by-blows of gold mining.
This may already have you thinking twice about buying gold, but, tragically, the problems with the gold mining industry don’t end with processing. It’s estimated that approximately one million children worldwide work in the mining industry, many of them in gold processing, and most of them in the Global South, where few laws protect them from workplace hazards like heavy metals. Even in nations with laws against child labour practices and hazardous gold processing techniques, these laws become very difficult to enforce in far-flung areas, particularly when inspectors are harried, bribable and unable to control their own officers.
In Indonesia, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, children handle mercury directly on a daily basis to process gold on a small scale. This heavy metal is highly toxic for people of all ages, but particularly children, as it interferes with neurological development. Children exposed to high levels of mercury can experience developmental delays, tremors and other serious impairments that will linger for life — all for a few pennies’ worth of gold.
Fighting the abuses of the gold industry in the Global South involves working with national governments to develop functional and enforceable laws to keep children out of mines, restrict the use of heavy metals in refining and mandate that mines behave in environmentally responsible ways. On the consumer end, one option is to join programs like the No Dirty Gold campaign, which includes jewelers who commit to sourcing supplies ethically, and consumers who pledge to only buy “clean” gold. Of course, there’s another option — consider reusing family rings or pursuing rings and other jewelry made from other materials (make sure they’re also environmentally sustainable, though!).
Photo credit: Feed My Starving Children.