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Mercury vapor from gold purification robs Filipino mother of son

Charito Avellano Elcano wipes her tears before the grave of her son German, who died of mercury poisoning, in Jose Panganiban, in the Philippine province of Camarines Norte, on August 1, 2017. (Mainichi)

CAMARINES NORTE PROVINCE, Philippines -- "Mom, I'm so tired." With twisted fingers and an emaciated body, the adult son of Charito Avellano Elcano, who lives in the city of Jose Panganiban here, became unable to ingest anything but fruit and milk. As he repeatedly pounded on the walls in agony, all Elcano could do was pray to God that if her son was to die, that he would quickly spare him of the pain.

That was seven years ago, when the 59-year-old lost her third child German to mercury poisoning. He was 27 at the time. As a child, German had inhaled a large amount of mercury vapor, which eventually claimed his life. "It's my fault I exposed such a young child to mercury," lamented Elcano in tears.

In 1989, she returned to her hometown of Jose Panganiban with her children from the island of Leyte. At the time, the gold rush was in full swing, and a former classmate had made a hefty profit from artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), which uses mercury to purify gold. Elcano also wanted to make money. She hired 60 people, and at the end of the following year, an 8-kilogram hunk of gold was discovered in a mountain she owned. Purchasing 10 kilograms of mercury, Elcano began refining the gold in her home.

Not wanting anyone to see the gold, she shut all the windows in the house. Heating an alloy made from crushed gold ore and mercury to evaporate the mercury and produce purified gold, she continued her work every day into the predawn hours. With the windows tightly closed, the evaporated mercury vapor had nowhere to go.

One day, a then 7-year-old German, whose room was on the second floor of the house, complained that he was having trouble breathing. The condition of German's uncle in his 40s, who was living with them, also quickly took a turn for the worse, and he was diagnosed with mercury poisoning at the hospital. He died later that day.

Elcano worried about German. When he turned 15, he began complaining of chest pain. He would also suddenly laugh, or mumble things that didn't make sense. Around the time he was 22, he was diagnosed with severe mercury poisoning. Despite treatment, his body gradually deteriorated. When he died in 2010, his entire body was emaciated.

"Even though it was my fault that he was dying, he never once complained," Elcano said of her thoughtful son. "He was a good kid and I sacrificed him in the name of money."

While German is buried in a cemetery nearby, Elcano rarely visits. "He's still alive in my heart," she said. If she goes, the memories of his pain well up.

A photo of Charito Avellano Elcano's late son German, who died of mercury poisoning, is seen on August 1, 2017, in Jose Panganiban, in the Philippine province of Camarines Norte. (Mainichi)

The death of her beloved son changed Elcano. Now, she no longer uses mercury in ASGM, and to make sure that a tragedy like hers doesn't occur again, she spreads the word about the dangers of mercury to those around her. Regarding the adoption of the international Minamata Convention on Mercury this August, which calls for restrictions on mercury, Elcano said, "This will help further spread awareness about the dangers of mercury to the next generation."

"I want to convey my story to as many people as possible, so that the use of mercury will end as soon as possible," she said. (By Tetsuro Hatakeyama, Science & Environment News Department)


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

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