Assessing the impacts of artisanal gold mining in Uganda

I am one of six UWE Bristol students who travelled to Uganda this summer to work with the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) as part of the UWE Global Water Security Project. We are all researching different issues relating to artisanal gold mining in Bukuya, a two-hour drive from Kampala. As a Biomedical Science student, I am investigating the health impacts.

Gold mining is negatively affecting people’s health in this rural district, especially through the use of mercury in the mining process. Interviewing and examining the miners and people in the surrounding village will provide information that can be used to identify specific health issues and possible solutions. We will also test water supplies for Escherichia Coli (E.coli), Vibrio cholerae and Salmonella typhi, working in collaboration with a Ministry of Health laboratory.

The main problem is that there is a lack of knowledge about mercury poisoning. There is no personal protective equipment for miners – because of the crucial importance of artisanal gold mining as a source of income, miners work there regardless of the risk.

Signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning in the early stages include dry and itchy eyes, which causes blurring of vision in miners who are handling mercury. Headaches are also a common problem, along with skin irritation, erythema of the palms and soles, and edema (swelling) of the legs.

Another problem is that hospitals in Bukuya are not able to easily diagnose mercury poisoning as their priority and expertise is treating malaria, typhoid, cholera, influenza and sexually transmitted diseases. The hospital laboratories are not able to assess mercury exposure by testing urine or blood – the methods are not in place and the equipment is basic.

One of the solutions is educating people about the signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning, and developing better ways of assessing mercury exposure in hospitals.