Negative Impacts of Gold
Along with being the epitome of human craving for luxury, affluence, and power, gold has become the ultimate commodity as the demand for it never seems to cease. From time immemorial, people have been using it to satisfy their need for embellishment as well as utilizing gold in its universal medium-of-exchange capacity. Technological advances provided new uses for gold and its alloys in the electronics industry like long-lasting gold-infused batteries and reliable computer or mobile phone parts. Gold’s indisputable reliability as a connector and conductor has earned due appreciation in aerospace. Even the climate-controlled building construction makes use of gold film. The only thing that has not changed since the discovery of gold is human greed. Willingness to keep receiving lavish benefits from gold-related business activity beginning from its extraction to trade puts enormous strain on the environment. The negative impact of gold mining and processing on ecosystems, humans, and animal life cannot possibly be underestimated.
So far, it looks like we are thoughtlessly trying to gilt our life in an attempt to cover the lingering collective guilt over harming our planet. Every wedding ring placed on a happy bride’s finger has a trail of 20 tons of waste abandoned to poison the forests and rivers, slowly killing fish and water birds and, eventually, finding a way into our bodies. Every time we consume water or fish products, we may intake food laced with mercury or arsenic resulting from the process of providing us with gold ornaments or reliable computer microchips. I strongly believe that the industrial production of that precious metal has endangered the biosphere including land, people, animals and plants, and continues doing so.
Producing gold has a devastating impact on the environment. Firstly, the gold price explosion has induced deforestation of South America, as stated by a recent study of mining impacts. Nowadays, with the stakes higher than usual, it has become worthwhile to exploit low-grade seams in tropical forests, the destructive effect of which is now visible from space. The Grasberg mine in Indonesia, the largest open-pit gold mine in the world, provides the grave example. Secondly, although significantly less expanded compared to the deforested agricultural areas, gold mining produces far worse side effects due to the use of arsenic, mercury, and cyanide in the process. The now-profitable extraction of low-grade deposits contaminates water bodies far beyond the mining area.
The resulting poisonous solution, called “acid mine drainage” which contains more than thirty harmful chemicals, is proven to have a deleterious effect on living organisms. The research revealed that as much as 180 million tons of polluted water get into the ecosystem due to the annual dumping or infrastructure failure. Thirdly, the common cost-effective method of gold extraction, heap leaching, turns out to be extremely wasteful. The ore made into enormous heaps up to 100 meters in height is dripped through with a cyanide solution to extract the miserable 0.01 percent of gold it contains. Cyanide-containing water, used in the process of gold extracting and later abandoned untreated, more often than not trickles into water bodies. Not only does it leave vast areas barren, but it also leads to contamination of groundwater, let alone rivers and lakes.
Gold production appears to be highly detrimental to the animal kingdom. In the case of tailings dam failures, as it happened in Romania in 2000, wastewater laden with hazardous substances such as cyanide, arsenic, and mercury kills tons of fish contaminating massive drinking water supply in the process. Among other aquatic inhabitants, freshwater fish and invertebrates turned out to be the most sensitive to cyanide. Due to its selectiveness, exposure to cyanide may leave aquatic systems dominated by the least cyanide-sensitive species, thus impairing biodiversity. In other words, wastewater from gold mining is exceptionally harmful to aquatic biota.
As people are inseparable from the environment, they suffer the consequences of the potentially hazardous way of gold acquisition no less than the rest of it, both physically and socially. Scientists proved that mercury and cyanide cause such grave health problems as memory loss, impaired motor functions and cognitive disorders, as well as essential organs dysfunction. Primarily, small-scale gold mining seems to be responsible for the lion’s share of health-impacting pollution. While larger companies, banned from using mercury in the process of gold extraction, found cheaper and more effective ways of processing auriferous ore, artisanal gold mining, as reported by the United Nations Environment Program, accounts for 37 percent of the world’s mercury emissions. According to the report, 15 million people, counting women and children, are internationally employed in it. In this case, people are forced by their circumstances to aggravate their lives further. As Ms.Yuyun, an alumna from Oxford puts it, “It’s quick cash. You dig, you get money - and you get poisoned.” Gold mining expansion breeds social problems like human rights violation in the form of restricting or denying indigenous people the right to their land. Paradoxically, in cases when courts rule in favor of the right of the local people to control and manage their own land, experts predict an artisan mining boom. Although not very profitable, small-scale mining employs millions of breadwinners who, often overworked and underpaid, endure inhuman working conditions. The daily routine of unprotected labor does not resolve the problems of their existence; it only temporarily delays them.
To conclude, booming gold-related business activities have led to the disruption of pristine environments and physical impairment of people and animals, also affecting the former socially. Health and safety risks artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMs) run on a daily basis cannot but arouse indignation at the way the business is conducted. Not only do they put themselves at risk, but also the entire planet is suffering. Whereas gold-related malpractice affects the whole biosphere, we cannot escape the pollution no matter how far from its source we find ourselves. However, the vicious circle of interdependent problems can be broken at the stage of the demand formation. Many gold-related businesses are urged to become environment-conscious.
The Fairtrade initiative, which manages the relations between consumers, manufacturers, and traders, utilizes an alternative approach toward maintenance of fair trade. Fairtrade’s cooperation with ASMs aims at reducing the amount of potentially harmful chemical substances used in their line of work. Additionally, they enhance awareness of health hazards and safety risks the workers might be facing. A network of ethical gold production is under formation using its own Fairgold standard. Regrettably, the technology and medical industries are yet to participate in the movement. It is high time we urged governments and businesses to act responsibly to preserve whatever is left. Unfortunately, in the wake of the recent US presidential election with the skyrocketing price for gold as a universal commodity, it will be next to impossible to control the modern gold rush.