Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Worldwide Campaign

Stop an invisible mass killing

The worldwide campaign

Millions of people worldwide are becoming ill or dying every day, without it being known that the cause of this mass killing is chronic arsenic poisoning.

Arsenic occurs naturally all over the world, but some human activities such as hard rock mining for gold, as well as burning coal and oil and using contaminated groundwater for drinking and irrigation have largely surpassed the natural sources of arsenic, with modern gold mining being by far the most important man-made source of arsenic [1].

In addition, arsenic is still used as an ingredient in various industries, in the production of feed additives, drugs, pesticides, wood preservatives and glass, among others.

Why is arsenic so poisonous?

Arsenic is one of the most potent environmental toxins. Because it targets widely dispersed enzyme reactions, arsenic affects nearly all organ systems. All 10 leading causes of death as ranked by the World Health Organization (WHO) can be caused by arsenic: cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, diseases of the nervous system, among others. Even infectious diseases can be aggravated by arsenic, because it disrupts the normal functioning of the immune system.

It requires less than 1 g of arsenic to kill 5 adult people within hours. Chronic poisoning by arsenic requires much lesser amounts within much longer exposure times.

Just 1 part of arsenic per billion parts of drinking water (1 ppb) over a long exposure time already poses a real health and environmental hazard [2-5]. However, many countries still adopt 10 parts per billion (10 ppb, or 10 microgram/liter) as maximum permitted concentration.

Less than 10 parts of arsenic per million parts of soil (<10 ppm, or <10 milligram/kg) are associated with prevalence and mortality from Alzheimer disease and other dementias [6]. However, many countries still adopt maximum permitted concentrations varying from 10-100 ppm.
Figure 1 – Arsenic concentration in European soils (2007). Source: FOREGS-Projekt.

How does arsenic get into our bodies?

Our bodies absorb arsenic primarily via ingestion and inhalation. We do not realize this, because arsenic is odourless, tasteless and colourless. The exposure dose is the cumulative exposure from all routes. As an effect of chronic exposure to even low-level arsenic, a number of cells become ill or die within our bodies every day - a truly invisible mass-killing.

Arsenic-associated diseases typically have a long latency, so that many patients exposed to arsenic remain symptom-free for years or even decades. The chronic illnesses caused by arsenic provoke enormous suffering, pose huge economical burdens to our families and countries, and to humanity.

Figure 2 – Arsenic in the groundwater worldwide. Source: Amini M, Abbaspour KC, Berg M, Winkel L, Hug SJ, Hoehn E, Yang H, Johnson CA. 2008. Preliminary statistical modeling of global geogenic arsenic contamination in groundwater. Environmental Science & Technology 42:3669-3675.

Why is gold mining so dangerous?

Modern, large scale hard rock gold mining is the most dangerous source of the pollution, because it releases millions of tonnes of arsenic from the rocks each year in various regions of our planet. These incredible amounts of released arsenic are a persistent cause of mass killing all over the world.

Modern gold mining also employs cyanide compounds as base metal solubilizing agents. The European Parliament has decided to prohibit cyanide in metal mining, beginning in 2011. This is an important move that we must support because cyanide is a potent acute killer of a wide range of plant and animal species including humans. However, arsenic is even more dangerous than cyanide, and large scale gold mining activities release millions of tonnes of arsenic each year, causing persistent mass killings all over the world.

Gold is naturally found inside the rocks that contain the highest amounts of arsenic. Hard rock mining activities that involve crushing and milling arsenic-bearing rocks, such as arsenopyrite result in the dispersal of incredible amounts of toxic arsenic that would otherwise remain trapped in these rocks.

The released arsenic can travel long distances with wind and water, affecting plant, animal and human health on a global scale, even decades or centuries after mining operations have stopped. Typically, the losses and damages impinging upon our health only become manifested long after the mining operations have finished.

Some estimates peg the number of abandoned small gold mines worldwide at the hundreds of thousands and the amount needed to detoxify them in the billions. However, modern gold mining has turned into a large-scale business, and liabilities have grown accordingly in the trillions.

One of the world’s largest gold mines is located on the outskirts of the city of Paracatu, Brazil, with 84 thousand inhabitants. The Paracatu gold mine is Brazil’s largest open cut gold mine. It is operated by the Canadian Kinross Gold Corporation. This mining operation is leading to one of the most serious, persistent man-made increases in the environmental concentration of arsenic ever seen on the history of gold mining [7]. With over one million tonnes of arsenic to be released from the rocks in the next 30 years of mining activities, the Paracatu mine is one of the world’s worst examples of environmental pollution caused by man-made arsenic release from hard rocks.

Figure 3 – The Paracatu gold mine is Brazil’s largest open cut gold mine. It is operated by the Canadian Kinross Gold Corporation on the outskirts of a town with 84 thousand inhabitants. This mining operation is leading to one of the most serious, persistent man-made increases in the concentration of arsenic in the natural environment. Photograph by Beto Magalhães (2008).

There are hundreds of large mines in the prospecting or developing phases worldwide. Both active and abandoned gold mines persistently release arsenic to the environment during decades, centuries and millennia. It would require trillions to counteract the effects of environmental pollution caused by gold mining. If mining corporations did pay for these liabilities, then hard rock gold mining would be economically unfeasible.

However, mining corporations do not pay for the destruction and the invisible, persistent pollution that they impinge on the environment, or the global damage they cause to human health. Therefore liabilities are left for peoples and governments to pay: peoples pay with their health and their lives, and governments pay with taxpayer’s money.

Blood stained gold

The world is witnessing a new gold rush. This is due, in part, to the sharp rise in gold price that jumped for the first time on the stock exchanges in March 2008 to about 1,000 U.S. dollars per troy ounce.

Within six years, the price of gold nearly quadrupled. In 2003, the world market demanded around 2600 tonnes of gold, about one hundred times more than in the 19th Century.

According to the World Gold Council, in that same year 78 % of the gold was used in jewellery production. The electronics industry and dentistry absorbed only about 15 % of production.

Modern gold mining worldwide destroys the environment, expels people from their land and releases incredible amounts of arsenic. This gold rush is financing an invisible mass killing worldwide.

Figure 4 – Gold deposits and gold districts of the world. From: Gosselin P, Dubé B (2005). Geological Survey of Canada, Open File 4893.

This irresponsible, invisible killing must stop. Each one of us can help by supporting this worldwide campaign to attain the following goals:

• Impose an immediate worldwide ban on the mining of arsenic-bearing hard rocks, such as arsenopyrite in gold mines. Critics say: basically, no more gold should be mined today. In the cellars of the state banks alone, there are thousands of tonnes of hoarded gold. If one were to reintroduce these reserves to the market, then gold mining could drastically be reduced, if not suspended for years. The top hoarders of gold stocks in 2007 were the U.S. with 8133 tonnes and Germany with 3417 tonnes. Before the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Germany still held some 3217 tonnes.

• Impose an immediate ban on arsenic in plant, animal and human food, feed additives and fertilizers;

• Lower the provisional drinking water limit for arsenic from 10 ppb to <1 ppb (<1 microgram/litre). Since there is no safe dose for a cancer-causing substance like arsenic, the ideal arsenic concentration in drinking water should be 0 ppb. The <1 ppb limit is fixed solely on the basis of the workable detection limit of analytical laboratories; • Prohibit any man-made increase of arsenic concentrations both in natural and man-made environments. The natural concentration of arsenic in surface water worldwide averages 1 part per billion (ppb) [8]. Groundwater arsenic concentrations may largely exceed this limit in many regions of the world [9], therefore, the use of arsenic-contaminated groundwater must be subject to legal restrictions. Worldwide natural concentrations of arsenic in soils and sediments average 1 ppm (1 milligram/kg) [range <0.10 to 100 ppm] [10]. Any man-made increase in natural arsenic concentrations in soil poses increased ingestion and inhalation risks and, therefore, must be prohibited and dealt with accordingly. • List arsenic as a worldwide hazardous air, soil and water pollutant, defined as a substance that may cause increased morbidity and mortality in humans due to chronic exposure to even only low-level concentrations [11]. • Make gold mining corporations truly pay for liabilities. Gold mining corporations are fond of greenwashing, which means apparent paying for just the visible, minute part of the liabilities. Bad governments and bad politicians tend to accept these ‘facilitation payments’ in order to obtain votes, favours or simply money. Independent scientists must be involved in calculating the real liabilities, and lawsuits must be brought to courts to make corporations pay their debts. What can each one of us do personally to help?

• We can avoid purchasing mass-industrialized gold jewelry. Those who buy gold should be aware of the actual price of the necklace or the bracelet: millions of tonnes of arsenic, devastated landscapes, billions of litres of polluted water in rivers and poisoned people living in misery and disease, or expelled from their land. How heavy the expensive glossy objects are, is shown by the amount of mostly toxic waste, soil and rock which is necessary for modern gold mining to win the gold for just one wedding ring: 20 tonnes, of which approximately 20 kilograms are toxic arsenic!

• We can have old jewelry and other products reworked or recycled.

• We can talk to the jewelers about the environmental problems involved in the mining of gold and send reports of these conversations to organizations for human rights and protection of nature [12]. We can draw attention to the use of "certified gold" which is gold obtained through processes of highest social and environmental standards, as opposed to "dirty gold."

• We can convert the pure image of gold to the ugly reality, for example, through letters and other articles in newspapers and magazines, videoclips, music, films, etc.

• We can avoid "golden gifts" on Christmas trees or other special occasions.

• We can place this report in the waiting room of our physician, hairdresser or other locations.

• We can support the call by non-governmental organizations [12] to governments and financial institutions such as the World Bank to discourage future loans for gold mines.

• We can talk to members of parliament in our constituency about the problem and ask them to be active in this sense.

• We can support lawsuits to make Gold Mining Corporations pay for the environmental and health liabilities they cause, and not simply leave liabilities for tax-payers to pay with their lives.

• We can reflect on these questions: What use is gold? Can we live without it? Why must we die for it?

References and notes:

1. Dani SU. Gold, coal and oil. Medical Hypotheses 2010 Mar; 74 (3):534-41.

2. Arsenic in drinking water: 2001 Update, National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

3. United Nations Synthesis Report on Arsenic in Drinking-Water. WHO, 2001.

4. Eisler R. A review of arsenic hazards to plants and animals with emphasis on fishery and wildlife resources. In: J. O. Nriagu, ed. Arsenic in the Environment, Part II: Human Health and Ecosystem Effects. John Willey and Sons, New York, NY, USA, 1994: pp. 185-259.

5. Smith AH, Steinmaus C, Yuan Y, Liaw J, Hira-Smith MM. High concentrations of arsenic in drinking water result in the highest known increases in mortality attributable to any environmental exposure. Proceedings of a Symposium: Arsenic – The Geography of a Global Problem. Royal Geographical Society: Arsenic Conference, 29th August 2007.

6. Dani SU. Arsenic for the fool: an exponential relation. Science of the Total Environment 2010 Mar 15; 408 (8):1842-6.


8. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 2007. Toxicological profile for arsenic. Draft for Public Comment. Atlanta GA [updated 2007 August].

9. Ravenscroft P, Brammer H, Richards K. 2009. Arsenic Pollution: A Global Synthesis. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN-978-1-4051-8601-8

10. Shacklette HT, Boerngen JG. 1984. Element concentrations in soils and other surficial materials of the conterminous United States: Reston VA: U.S. Geological Survey. Professional Paper 1270. p. 6.

11. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Arsenic compounds hazard summary. Technology transfer network air toxics website. Washington DC [updated 2007 November 6].

12. A non-exclusive list of organizations that can take part in the campaign includes: AVAAZ, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Care International, Caritas International, Concern Worldwide, Consciencia Solidaria, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), FIAN, Friends of the Earth, Friends of Peoples Close to Nature (Freunde der Naturvölker e.V.), Acangau Foundation (Fundação Acangaú), Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte e. V. (GDNÄ), Greenpeace, Halifax Initiative, International Society for Threatened People (GfbV-Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker), IUCN, Mines and Communities, Mining Watch Canada, Misereor, Rettet den Regenwald, Survival International, Urwald, WHO-World Health Organization, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), among others.

E-mail Dr. Sergio U. Dani at

1 comment:

  1. Temos vivido e sentido na pele o pesadelo de uma das mineradoras gigantes do ouro a Anglo Gold Ashanti antiga Mineração Morro Velho que a mais de 150 anos vem explorando a cidade de Nova Lima e região, Raposos, Sabará, Barão de Cocais, etc.... Precisamos angariar forças junto ao contra a contaminação por arsênio