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Mercury's Poisonous, Profitable Role in the New Gold Rush

Mercury is beautiful, toxic, and illegal to export from most countries. So how is so much of it showing up in mining towns all over the world?
Mercury's Poisonous, Profitable Role in the New Gold Rush
Photograph by Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

As he clambered out of bed and onto his feet one morning late last year, Miguel Angel Cardona, 62, felt his body betray him. His head grew so heavy it pulled him tumbling back down. “You feel fuzzy, like you’re drunk,” recalls the grandfather of nine, who’s spent most of his life in Segovia, a gold-mining town in northwestern Colombia. In the days that followed he noticed numbness in his hands and fingertips. He lost 12 pounds, no longer able to stomach the meat, rice, and fried plantains his wife sent with him to work each day at a single-shaft mine on the edge of town. He worked with drums filled with mercury, water, and crushed stone to process gold. Cardona suspected his job was poisoning him.

In Segovia, nearly 100 shops process the gold that prospectors bring down from the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Juan Camilo Hoyos, 17, had no doubt his work at one of the shops was toxic. Hoyos operated a smelting oven, and after inhaling fumes each workday for about two months, he too lost the fine motor skills in his hands. “I couldn’t draw a straight line,” he says. To escape the fumes, Hoyos took a job inside the cashier’s cage of a store that buys finished gold from the miners. He was a couple of feet away when a robber pumped nine bullets into a co-worker, who survived. Still, Hoyos believes his new job is better for his health than his last one.