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For one young gold worker in the Philippines, mercury posed unforeseen danger

This photo shows Bryan Chicano, who suffered poor health after working with mercury and is worried about his future, in the Philippine province of Camarines Norte. (Mainichi)

CAMARINES NORTE PROVINCE, Philippines -- One night about two months ago, Bryan Chicano, a 16-year-old high school student in the city of Labo in this province, suddenly felt something at the back of his throat and rushed outside, where he coughed up about half a cup worth of blood. In shock, he let out a yell in the darkness.

Chicano, who is in his second year of high school, divulged his symptoms to the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview two days after the incident.

"When I move, it feels hard to breathe. I get dizzy. I wonder if the mercury vapor I continued to breathe in at work is the cause," he said. He rubbed his chest and tears welled in his eyes.

From the age of 8, Chicano worked in a sector known as artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), which uses mercury to purify gold. When crushed gold ore is mixed with mercury, an alloy is formed. When this is heated, the mercury alone evaporates, leaving behind highly refined gold.

"When I got gold I was happy. That's because I could get money for it," Chicano says. He earned the equivalent of about 200 Japanese yen (less than 2 dollars) a day, though one time, when he got a lot of gold, he got around 5,000 yen (about 44 dollars). When he is not at school, he makes his way to a working area near his home, and heats up alloys. Half of what he makes goes toward his school fees and the other half is given to his mother to support the household.

Over a long break in April this year, Chicano started to notice something was wrong. While working day after day, he got a cough and pain in his chest that wouldn't go away. Breathing in mercury vapor can cause chest pain and inflammation of the respiratory organs, and if it accumulates in the brain, it can cause such psychiatric problems as hallucinations and delusion. In some cases it can lead to death.

"I didn't know it was bad for me," Chicano said. He never wore a mask. An X-ray taken at a hospital after he coughed up the blood showed an abnormality in his right lung. A subsequent test found what was suspected to be tuberculosis bacteria.

Shigeru Yoshida, an industrial physician and former professor at Kindai University who has conducted research on mercury poisoning, commented, "There are many tuberculosis patients in the Philippines. It's possible that mercury vapor invaded his lungs, and that this, coupled with a decrease in physical strength and immunity, caused him to develop tuberculosis."

Chicano's 38-year-old mother, Lilibet, worries about the health of her only son. "His condition is poor and he can't go to school, which he loves. I feel sorry for him," she said.

Chicano says he has made up his mind never to use mercury again.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, between 10 million and 15 million people work in ASGM, in which gold is mined and refined in small teams of workers, mainly in developing countries. Of the estimated 1,960 metric tons of mercury in the atmosphere in 2010, ASGM was said to account for 727 tons, or 37 percent.

In many cases in Southeast Asia, ASGM is performed by people from poor families or seasonal workers who are working illegally without government permission. Gold ore is extracted from tunnels in mountains, and it is common for mercury to be used in the refining process. It is said to be easier for adverse symptoms caused by mercury to appear in children, whose bodies are smaller.

The international Minamata Convention on Mercury, which went into effect on Aug. 16, 2017, calls on the parties to take steps to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate the use of mercury and mercury compounds and the emissions of mercury from ASGM and other such mining and processing. At the same time, it allows flexibility to accommodate national development plans. (By Tetsuro Hatakeyama, Science & Environment News Department)


This is the first part of a series of articles on mercury poisoning.

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