Mercury, used in gold mining and electronics, poses serious health risks. Despite international pressure to ban its trade, Kyrgyzstan is ramping up production.
Just north of Aidarken, a town in Kyrgyzstan, smokestacks tower over hillsides streaked with red. Deep underground, men wearing headlamps toil away in the dusty dark, breaking rocks with sledgehammers. They are mining cinnabar ore, the mineral processed into mercury — a gleaming, silver-colored metal with dangerous properties.
The Aidarken mine is one of the on Earth where new mercury is legally extracted for the international market. Since 2013, 135 nations have signed the Minamata Convention, a global agreement that bans new mercury production and aims to phase out most international trade in the metal.
But Kyrgyzstan, which sees mining as a cornerstone of its economy, isn’t one of them. The country is now ramping up mercury production, even as researchers warn the metal poses a health risk not just to people living near the mines, but around the world.
“I believe that mercury pollution of the environment is not only our problem,” said Makhmud Isirayilov, the head of a nearby laboratory run by the Health Ministry. “This is a global problem.”
A lucrative international market
Mercury mining in Aidarken, a town of roughly 10,000 people, began in 1941 when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union and scrambling to find new sources of metal. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the plant remained a state-owned venture, producing mercury for export to China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, India, France and the United States.
Though the market has shrunk since the establishment of the Minamata Convention, mercury is still a $38-million (€32-million) industry worldwide and a significant driver of the regional economy in Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished Batken province, where per capita production is about 2.5 times lower than the national average.
The metal is used in manufacturing certain types of lamps, electrical equipment and batteries and is also a major component in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, mainly in South America and sub-Saharan Africa.
A 2015 global inventory found these activities emitted about 2,500 metric tons of mercury into the atmosphere annually. Illegal mercury mining is also a thriving black market, even in countries that have signed onto the Minamata Convention, and is particularly destructive in the Amazon.