The Sunday News
Munyaradzi Musiiwa, Features Reporter
FROM a distance approaching Shurugwi from Gweru an unfamiliar person would think they are entering a war zone.
or those that are faint hearted or young at heart they can easily be daunted as explosives make war sounds as artisanal miners take turns to blast the underground of their narrow and poorly ventilated mine shafts. However, the miners, the majority who do not have blasting licenses are oblivious to the hazards and dangers of handling explosives without adequate knowledge of their usage or storage.
Their ignorance has been sanitised and naturalised by their continuous usage of the dynamites in blasting hard surfaces without any visible repercussions or immediate health effects that can be traced back to the use of explosives. The dire situation is worsened by not wearing protective clothing including respirators. Some go underground and inhale carbon monoxide oblivious to the dangers thereof.
“If one of us passes out after inhaling carbon (monoxide) underground, we put gumtree leaves on their noses and put them in an open truck then we travel at a high speed. Once they get fresh air, they are okay and fit to go back to work,” said an artisanal miner who also once passed out after inhaling carbon monoxide.
There are no safety and precautionary measures taken in the blasting of the explosives. Personality changes may occur, and case studies have described prominent depression, anxiety, and irritability several years after accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Residual cognitive deficits, executive dysfunction, and impairments in memory and concentration may all contribute to deterioration in mood.
Depending on the degree and length of exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause permanent brain damage. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause profound psychomotor retardation, hypophonia, and prolonged speech latency.
According to medical studies neuropsychiatric sequelae of carbon monoxide poisoning occur in up to 50 percent of all patients who sustain toxic levels of the poisonous gas and the prevalence varies based on the criteria used to quantify the severity of the poisoning event. An epidemiologic study of patients with carbon monoxide poisoning noted delayed-onset neuropsychological sequelae. Symptoms may arise immediately or follow an asymptomatic period. Lucid intervals of up to 240 days have been observed after carbon monoxide poisoning, although the mean latency for development of cognitive and behavioural symptoms is three weeks. Some patients abruptly developed neuropsychological impairment approximately three weeks after poisoning.
This could possibly explain the weird behaviours of some artisanal miners. The fights among small-scale miners, or amakorokoza, as they are commonly referred to as, have brought a lot of misery in most mining communities such as Shamva, Gwanda, Mazoe, Kwekwe, Zvishavane and Shurugwi among others.
Police say they have a torrid time containing artisanal miners fights hence Operation Chikorokoza ngachipere.
“Violence perpetrated by illegal gold miners is on the surge,” they say.
Police conceded that the country had recorded an increase in crimes of concern emanating from intermittent amakorokoza running battles, most of which spill into surrounding communities that are always caught on the crossfire.
Crimes of concern include robbery, murder and violence. Police have banned the carrying of weapons including machetes, axes and iron bars most of which were used in the commission of crimes by artisanal miners.
This followed a series of murder cases mostly in mining communities. What worsened the situation was that the perpetrators were not being apprehended.
Almost 15 000 gold panners, including members of machete gangs and other criminal elements have been arrested in mining communities countrywide since January under the ongoing “Operation Chikorokoza Ngachipere” and “No to Machete Wielding Gangs”. Machete gangs, including those using knobkerries, have resurfaced countrywide, targeting mines and people keeping large amounts of cash at home, as well as intimidating local communities.
There are many hypotheses that exist in explaining the artisanal miners’ wayward behaviour. Apart from the exposure to carbon monoxide, the most recent was their exposure to mercury. Scientific research has demonstrated that mercury, even in small amounts, can damage the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, thyroid gland, pituitary gland, adrenal gland, cells, enzymes and hormones and suppress the body’s immune system.
Recent scientific researches have shown high levels of mercury in the brains of individuals who died from Alzheimer’s disease. Other research demonstrates mercury can cause pathological effects in the brain. Laboratory studies of spinal fluid from Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease patients have confirmed that mercury inhibits key brain detoxification of enzyme systems.
Mercury can be absorbed into the body through the lungs and move easily from the bloodstream into the brain. It has been scientifically proven that inhalation of elemental mercury vapours can cause neurological and behavioural disorders, such as tremours, emotional instability, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular changes and headaches.
Bulawayo Psychiatrist, Dr Nemache Mawere, said exposure to mercury could lead to mental disorders such as the mad hatter syndrome, an organic mental disorder. He also confirmed that exposure to carbon also has effects on mental health.
Dr Mawere said it has been scientifically proven that exposure to and mishandling of mercury can lead to mental illness, wayward behaviour, mood swings, loss of memory and many other mental health related illnesses.
He said exposure of artisanal miners and illegal gold panners to mercury was one of the major sources of their wayward behaviour where in most cases they become violent and commit violence related crimes such as murder.
“If you trace back the mad hatter syndrome you will find out that a mercury solution was commonly used during the process of turning fur into felt, which caused the hatters to breathe in the fumes of this highly toxic metal, a situation exacerbated by the poor ventilation in most of the workshops.
“This led in turn to an accumulation of mercury in the workers’ bodies, resulting in symptoms such as trembling, loss of co-ordination, slurred speech, loosening of teeth, memory loss, depression, irritability and anxiety or the mad hatter syndrome.
“Exposure to mercury has long term effects. I have raised these issues before but people were slow to react. Exposure to mercury can cause organic mental disorders and long-term mental problems. It has been scientifically proven that exposure to mercury has effects on people’s mental health. We are keen on researching on the effects of mercury particularly on artisanal miners. I have for long raised concerns that their behaviour could be as a result of their exposure to mercury notwithstanding drug and substance abuse,” Dr Mawere.
Major studies on the effects of mercury have been done in Zimbabwe and these include the Global Mercury Project which was done from 2002 to 2007 and the 2015 diagnostic report on environmental health implication of mercury in artisanal small-scale gold mining Zimbabwe. The projects revealed that mercury was being used by an estimated 1,5 million small-scale miners. On average the calculations done proved that more than 50 tonnes of mercury are being used annually in gold processing.
Studies on the Environmental and Human Health Assessments identified gold stamp milling centres as the main centres of mercury pollution. Mercury was found in air, sediments and soil with the largest concentration being in air. Results showed that mercury pollution of water and soils is limited to a radius of less than 5 km from the milling centres. Most of the mercury ends up bio-accumulating in the aquatic food chains.
The Government of Zimbabwe is one of the 135 signatories of the Minamata convention and is in the process of ratifying it so that the country bans the use of mercury in gold mining.
Zimbabwe has an ultimatum which expires in 2020 to ratify the convention and fully implement its principles and provisions.
Recently, Environmental Management Agency (Ema) launched a vigorous campaign educating small-scale and artisanal miners on usage, storage and safe disposal of mercury.