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Bose-O'Reilly, Stephan; Bernaudat, Ludovic; Siebert, Uwe; Roider, Gabriele; Nowak, Dennis; Drasch, Gustav (2017): Signs and Symptoms of Mercury-Exposed Gold Miners. In: International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, Vol. 30, No. 2: pp. 249-269
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Abstract

Objectives: Gold miners use mercury to extract gold from ore adding liquid mercury to the milled gold-containing ore. This results in a mercury-gold compound, called amalgam. Miners smelt this amalgam to obtain gold, vaporizing it and finally inhaling the toxic mercury fumes. The objective was to merge and analyze data from different projects, to identify typical signs and symptoms of chronic inorganic mercury exposure. Material and Methods: Miners and community members from various artisanal small-scale gold mining areas had been examined (Philippines, Mongolia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Indonesia). Data of several health assessments were pooled. Urine, blood and hair samples were analyzed for mercury (N = 1252). Questionnaires, standardized medical examinations and neuropsychological tests were used. Participants were grouped into: Controls (N = 209), living in an exposed area (N = 408), working with mercury as panners (N = 181), working with mercury as amalgam burners (N = 454). Ch(i)2 test, linear trend test, Mann-Whitney test, Kruskal-Wallis test, correlation coefficient, Spearman's rho, and analysis of variance tests were used. An algorithm was used to define participants with chronic mercury intoxication. Results: Mean mercury concentrations in all exposed subgroups were elevated and above threshold limits, with amalgam burners showing highest levels. Typical symptoms of chronic metallic mercury intoxication were tremor, ataxia, coordination problems, excessive salivation and metallic taste. Participants from the exposed groups showed poorer results in different neuropsychological tests in comparison to the control group. Fifty-four percent of the high-exposed group (amalgam burners) were diagnosed as being mercury-intoxicated, compared to 0% within the control group (Chi(2) p < 0.001). Conclusions: Chronic mercury intoxication, with tremor, ataxia and other neurological symptoms together with a raised body burden of mercury was clinically diagnosed in exposed people in artisanal small-scale mining areas. The mercury exposure needs to be urgently reduced. Health care systems need to be prepared for this emerging problem of chronic mercury intoxication among exposed people.