EARTH Thailand

Toxic heavy metals in residents near mine

The Nation 28 August 2017 | Pratch Rujivanarom


A REPORT on the health impacts has confirmed that people living near a gold mine in Phichit province have been exposed to higher than average levels of heavy metals.

The study found that many samples of blood and urine showed exposure to dangerous levels of arsenic and manganese, which posed a serious health threat.

However, the study did not conclusively identify a specific link to pollution from the Akara Resources’ Chatree gold mine that has operated in the area. 

Wisa Supanpaiboon, a researcher at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Naresuan University, conducted the study.

The Department of Disease Control (DDC) had already dispatched a medical team to monitor the health of the population, who are at risk of developing illnesses from heavy metal exposure.

Wisa said his report had been compiled by analysing information from previous health surveys done by several agencies. However, the research lacked a comparison to baseline data, because none had been collected prior to the mine opening. 

Wisa said that the lack of baseline data was a big limitation in his research.

Nevertheless, he said the outcome showed that many people living near the Chatree gold mine had been exposed to arsenic and manganese for a long period of time. Health checks of some individuals also showed traces of exposure to cyanide.

It can be concluded that this was a major health risk for people and the issue needed to be addressed as soon as possible, Wisa said.

“The biggest issue from this finding is that children have been exposed to toxic substances as well,” he said, citing Dr Adisak Plitpolkarnpim, a paediatrician at Ramathibodi Hospital, who concluded that long exposure to high amounts of heavy metal led to a decrease in the learning abilities of children.

“We conclude that the communities around the gold mine have a vivid health threat from the pollution in their environment,” said Wisa.

Even though research could not pinpoint the pollution source, “the Public Health Ministry and relevant agencies must help people and eliminate the threat to the people’s health and wellbeing”, Wisa said.

The research is one of many studies about the role of gold mining operations in environmental and health problems. The government has ordered the Industry Ministry, Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, Public Health Ministry, and Science and Technology Ministry to study the impacts of gold mining operations on the environment and people’s health.

The agencies will draw on research results to examine problems associated with gold mines and suggest solutions for all stakeholders. Meanwhile, gold mine operations countrywide have been suspended since the beginning of the year.

According to previous reports, the research project was expected to cost Bt15.3 million and was sponsored by the Chatree gold mine’s Environmental Impact Assessment fund. 

The findings have been forwarded to a committee set up to evaluate and address the impacts of gold mining on human and environmental health.

DDC director-general Dr Jedsada Chokdamrongsuk has said the department had dispatched a medical team to monitor people who had been diagnosed as having health risks from heavy metal exposure. There would be regular health checks on the population around the gold mine, Jedsada said.

“Even though the research contains a lot of limitations and lacks baseline information, we acknowledge that the health problems of people are real, and we are working to solve the problem,” Jedsada said. The Public Health Minister had also already been informed of the issue, he added.

In addition to Wisa’s study, Naresuan University researcher Tanapon Phenrat studied the possibility of heavy metal leakage from the mine’s tailing storage facilities. 

Win Triwittayanurak, also from Naresuan University, studied air pollution from the gold mine while Wini Thongchub of the Pollution Control Department studied the characteristics and composition of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns emanating from the gold mine.