The Hidden Cost of Gold: Birth Defects and Brain Damage

CIDAHU, Indonesia — Thousands of children with crippling birth defects. Half a million people poisoned. A toxic chemical found in the food supply. Accusations of a government cover-up and police officers on the take.

This is the legacy of Indonesia’s mercury trade, a business intertwined with the lucrative and illegal production of gold.

More than a hundred nations have joined a global campaign to reduce the international trade in mercury, an element so toxic there is “no known safe level of exposure,” according to health experts.

But that effort has backfired in Indonesia, where illicit backyard manufacturers have sprung up to supply wildcat miners and replace mercury that was previously imported from abroad. Now, Indonesia produces so much black-market mercury that it has become a major global supplier, surreptitiously shipping thousands of tons to other parts of the world.

Much of the mercury is destined for use in gold mining in Africa and Asia, passing through hubs such as Dubai and Singapore, according to court records — and the trade has deadly consequences.

“It is a public health crisis,” said Yuyun Ismawati, a co-founder of an Indonesian environmental group, Nexus3 Foundation, and a recipient of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize. She has called for a worldwide ban on using mercury in gold mining.

Mercury can be highly dangerous as it accumulates up the food chain, causing a wide range of disorders, including birth defects, neurological problems and even death.

On a single day, operating a furnace he constructed in his backyard, he could produce a ton of black-market mercury worth more than $20,000, he said.

Based on these studies, the environmental group estimates that decades of mining have poisoned 500,000 people.

The mercury trade is lucrative, but the gold business it supports is far more profitable. By some estimates, Indonesia’s illicit small-scale gold miners produce as much as $5 billion a year.

Poverty is widespread in Indonesia, and many people, jobless and desperate, have flocked to the gold fields.

As miners, they often live outside the law, digging for ore on land without permission or government permits, sometimes in national parks and protected areas.

To extract gold, the miners mix liquid mercury with crushed ore. Gold in the ore binds with the mercury to produce an amalgam of the metals. The miners heat the small lump with a blowtorch, sending mercury vapors into the air and leaving the gold behind.

Many miners like the method because it gives them a quick return.

But in mining communities, airborne mercury levels can be dangerously high. Wastewater containing mercury finds its way into fields, streams and bays, contaminating rice, fruit and fish, studies show.

Environment Ministry officials declined to be interviewed and did not respond to written questions.

Officials in the office of Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, acknowledged that mercury contamination is a serious problem and said he had issued a national action plan that calls for cleaning up four hot spots.

The president also has directed police and military commanders to take action against personnel found to be involved in the illegal metals trade. Officials said they were unaware of anyone being disciplined. Spokesmen for the national police and the military declined to be interviewed.

One international smuggler arrested last year was Chander Hass Khera, an Indian citizen. Seized documents show that he shipped 9.7 tons of mercury to South Africa, Thailand and India in 2017.

Last year, he bought an additional 3.8 tons from a dozen traders, said Dyah Paramita, a researcher at the Center for Regulation Policy and Governance in West Java, who reviewed court records.

Soon after the smuggler’s arrest, most of his confiscated mercury disappeared from police custody. The police told the court they were investigating.

Mr. Khera was sentenced to 18 months in prison for trying to ship mercury produced without proper permits.

Like methamphetamine labs in rural America, mercury distillation often takes place in remote areas, far from prying eyes.

Mr. Cece, 64, the prolific backyard mercury producer, began mining gold as a young man.

In 2010, as wildcat mining boomed, he said he started searching for cinnabar, the ore from which liquid mercury is produced.

Inspired by his years vaporizing mercury by blowtorch, he constructed a simple concrete furnace with a narrow trench in the center for a wood fire, steel buckets to heat the reddish ore and fixtures to capture the mercury as it cooled and liquefied.

His home in Sukabumi Regency in western Java is an unlikely spot for this backyard industry. A picturesque area of rice paddies and simple villages, there is no cinnabar ore or nearby highway. There is not even a road to Mr. Cece’s house in Cidahu village.

But on his patio, Mr. Cece built a furnace so large it could produce a ton of mercury in 24 hours.

He arranged to have cinnabar shipped from distant islands, often using express courier services.

He hired local men — “robbers, thieves and hit men,” he called them — to work the furnace.

Local police officers and health officials visited frequently, sometimes taking water samples. On each visit, he said, he gave them “pocket money.”

The inspectors found no health problems.

On one occasion, he said, he demonstrated his furnace to a high-ranking police official from Jakarta.

Soon dozens of copycat furnaces began appearing in Sukabumi and on islands closer to the cinnabar mines, helping flood the black market with cheap mercury.

“We all know that he is the pioneer,” said, Alung, 35, who learned the business working for Mr. Cece. Like many Indonesians, he uses one name.

The police cracked down on mercury producers in Sukabumi in 2017, shutting down three dozen furnaces and arresting about 100 people, including Mr. Cece.

He and nearly all the others avoided jail by agreeing to stop making mercury. Mr. Cece dismantled his furnace.

The police seized nearly a ton of mercury from three furnaces in the village. Mr. Cece and Mr. Alung suspect the police sold it because they brought their own containers to haul it away.

Before the crackdown, mercury production meant jobs.

Whatever the health hazard, the work paid better than anything else, and they were disappointed when the furnaces were shut down.

“We know it’s dangerous,” Mr. Alung said. “But we’re sad. We no longer have the income.”

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