In 1956, something strange happened in Minamata, Japan. People started developing abnormal gait, some lost their eyesight, others developed severe speech and hearing problems, tremors, insanity and in many cases people died. Pregnant women started having babies with very small heads. Some of these children could neither walk nor talk by three years. They had developed severe brain damage.
It was later found out that this strange combination of symptoms was due to the release of industrial wastewater high in methylmercury from the Chisso Corporation. There were high levels of mercury in both the water bodies and in the fish which was the staple of the people. About 1,784 people died and over 10,000 people suffered various forms of brain damage due to mercury poisoning.
Artisanal gold mining (Galamsey) is prevalent in Ghana. Conservative reports say Ghana has an estimated one million small-scale miners. These miners ply their trade both inland and along the banks of major rivers in the country such as the Pra, Offin, Ankobra and Birim. They mix mercury with the gold ore to create a gold-mercury amalgam and then burn the mercury off so the raw gold remains. Adults, children as young as nine, and even pregnant women are all involved in the trade.
Apart from the chronic inhalation of mercuric fumes, the mercury contaminated water is often dumped into our rivers. Fish in these rivers eat contaminated vegetation and converts the inorganic mercury into the deadly methyl mercury. Fish protein binds more than 90% of this chemical so tightly that even the most vigorous cooking methods cannot remove it.
Like the average Ghanaian, you may choose to stay in Accra or Kumasi unconcerned. There is, however, a catch here: you don’t know where your fish is coming from. Herein lies the problem. Methylmercury in fish readily crosses the placenta and damages the fetal brain. Babies are often born with Microcephaly (small head/brains). They subsequently develop cerebral palsy, mental retardation and seizures. In a study by Voegborlo and others at KNUST in 2010, 31 species of fish samples from James Town and the Tema Fishing Harbour all had safe levels of mercury. You and I however do not know how much of the fish we consume is coming from the polluted inland freshwater rivers.
On the 24th of September 2014, Ghana became a signatory to the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Article 7 of the convention states: ‘Each party (member state) that has small-scale gold mining within its territory needs to reduce the use of mercury and mercury compounds in mining and processing.’ If I am not grossly mistaken, the situation in Ghana has worsened since 2014.
The Water Research Institute estimates that in 14 years (by 2030) if we do not halt galamsey, there will be no treatable water source left in this country. Since we are exposing our children to so much mercury, we will have mentally retarded adults faced with water shortage. Surely we will all die from thirst in our old age.
By: Dr Frederick Oduro