Cyanide leaching bath at a miner's house in Phnom Chi. Miners often store dangerous chemicals at home, putting themselves and their families at risk.
From cooking mercury in their kitchens to dumping cyanide-infused waste by rivers,
gold miners in Cambodia use many techniques potentially hazardous to community health.
According to a report released on Monday, September 6, by Oxfam America, the introduction
of chemicals into small-scale mining operations over the last decade has transformed
the country's fledgling industry.
"This takes it to the next level of technology," said Carl Middleton, an
environmental scientist who edited and compiled the report. Oxfam's survey - the
first done on gold mining in Cambodia - investigated mines in Ratanakkiri, Kampong
Cham, Kampong Thom and Kratie provinces.
The results were unsettling. Researchers found that, due to lack of knowledge and
resources, miners were often putting themselves, their families and larger communities
at risk for chemical poisoning, said survey team leader Sieng Sotham, director of
the Department of Geology at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.
"The use of chemicals is a big, big problem," Sotham said. "Now all
the miners know the techniques."
This is a relatively new development. Gold mining in Cambodia has a long history,
but until the mid-1990s, miners preferred panning and sluicing, which are fairly
Once they had extracted all of the easy-to-reach gold at active mines, these methods
were no longer effective. They needed new techniques to reach finer forms of the
metal, buried deep in chunks of ore, Sotham said.
That's when mercury and cyanide began appearing at mines, gaining popularity from
province to province. Miners found that they could separate gold from ore by mixing
it with mercury, which forms an amalgam. Cooking that product causes the mercury
to evaporate, leaving the gold behind. Likewise, pouring cyanide over a box of crushed
ore filters out gold, a method known as "leaching".
Unfortunately, appropriate training and safety procedures did not accompany the techniques'
spread. Although methods vary from site to site, Sotham said miners rarely use protective
gloves or equipment in their work, handling chemicals with their bare hands.
"Mercury and cyanide seriously impact not only the environment, but the health
of miners themselves," he said.
While effects from cyanide can be more drastic and immediate - such as death - prolonged
exposure to mercury also has serious health implications, Middleton said. Damage
to kidneys, the brain and nervous system are typical of exposure to the latter, as
is inhibited childhood development.
And the country's miners aren't the only ones at risk. They often bring their work
home, potentially harming family members.
"For example, if you have mercury-contaminated clothes, someone in the family
could wash them and be poisoned," Middleton said. Sotham pointed out that the
survey team had seen toxic chemicals stored in houses and knew of miners who heated
mercury and ore on kitchen stovetops.
"They burn in the house, in the cottage in the presence of children," he
said. "The mercury then accumulates on the roof and in appliances used for cooking.
It's a direct impact to the miner and his family."
Unsafe storage and disposal of waste products also affect larger communities. Cyanide-contaminated
ore has been dumped by rivers in areas like Kampong Thom, poisoning water and fish
that locals rely on for sustenance.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the problem is that it would be relatively
easy to fix.
"A lot of looking after chemicals is common sense," Middleton said, like
washing hands, wearing protective clothing and not storing chemicals at home. But
some miners can't - or won't - take on more financial losses, while others are unaware
of the extent of the problem.
"Many people don't know," Sotham said. "We told them during the survey,
but we had a very short time. It was not sufficient."
He recommended that the 5,000 to 6,000 Cambodians who work throughout the year as
miners go through systematic training programs. This would require more funding and
awareness of the problem.
But, he said, Cambodia cannot ignore the damage caused by this industry.
"We must manage it immediately to avoid further contamination," he said.
"It's not only serious, but critical."