SANTA BARBARA, Philippines – Romnick Bocejo picked up his blowtorch and blasted a small lump of mercury and gold. A cloud of toxic fumes rose around his head as the intense heat vaporized the mercury. He covered his mouth and nose with his T-shirt and kept on burning.
At 16, Romnick has worked half his life in the meager family business: searching for gold in the remote mining region of Camarines Norte about 200 miles southeast of Manila.
One of his jobs is to incinerate the mercury, and, on this occasion, he produced a button-sized lump of nearly pure gold. He is uncertain whether to believe the smoke is dangerous.
“I have been doing this since I was 8 years old,” he said. “I do it every day now. I don’t know if the mercury contains poison. No one has ever told me that.”
Romnick is among the 115 million children ages 5 to 17 who work in hazardous occupations worldwide, according to an estimate by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization.
About 1 million children work in the dangerous job of mining, and many are exposed to mercury while their growing brains are most vulnerable.
Mercury has been known to be hazardous since the time of the ancient Greeks. The liquid metal can cause tremors, memory loss, brain damage and a host of other problems. Mercury accumulates in the body over time, and its effects are irreversible. It can be absorbed through the skin, ingested in food or inhaled as a vapor.
Today, small-scale gold mining is the largest source of mercury emissions caused by humans, accounting for more than 35 percent of the worldwide total, according to the U.N. Environmental Program.
Mercury use is widespread in the Philippines and Indonesia, where child labor is common and small-scale gold miners operate freely, even in ecologically sensitive areas.
On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, thousands of miners hack apart mountains in the Poboya-Paneki Grand Forest Park and use mercury to process the ore. In the Galangan area of central Borneo in Indonesia, an army of miners clear-cut the swampy rain forest and dredge up the soil in the hunt for gold, poisoning the environment and themselves with mercury and leaving thousands of acres of wasteland.
The two neighboring Southeast Asian nations, made up of some 25,000 islands, restrict the use of child labor. The burning of mercury is prohibited in the Philippines and in parts of Indonesia, but in both countries, pervasive corruption and weak central governments make it difficult to curb these practices, especially in remote areas.
“That’s the problem in developing countries,” said Halimah Syafrul, assistant deputy for hazardous substance management in Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment. “Our government can be bribed. Money can talk.”
In the Philippines, the government estimates that there are more than 300,000 small-scale gold miners. Officials acknowledge that laws restricting their activities are seldom enforced. Some operate under permits issued by local officials.
Convictions for bribery in the gold sector are unknown in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Much of the gold from Southeast Asia ends up in China, but once it enters the world gold market there is no way to know how much reaches the United States.
For centuries, miners have used mercury to extract gold and create an amalgam of the two metals. Large gold producers have switched to less primitive techniques. But the small-scale miners’ casual use of mercury introduces it into waterways, the air and the food supply – particularly fish – imperiling entire communities.
Julie Hall, World Health Organization representative to the Philippines, said mercury is one of the top 10 chemicals of public health concern worldwide.
“Children are smaller, so when they take in a dose of mercury, the effects on their bodies will be much greater,” she said in Manila. “Their brains are growing every day, and in that process they are very vulnerable to toxins such as mercury.”
Less than a metric ton of mercury was imported legally last year into Indonesia, said Syafrul, the Indonesian official. But 300 to 400 tons were smuggled into the country, she said, much of it to be used by small-scale miners.
“The problem is that the government cannot stop the import of mercury,” she said during an interview in her Jakarta office. “The mercury keeps coming into Indonesia and is still widely used in gold mining.”
Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder of BaliFokus, an environmental group pushing to reduce mercury use, contends that high-level Indonesian officials who receive a share of the payoffs are authorizing the illegal mining and smuggling of mercury.
“Gold is the daily allowance of the generals,” said Ismawati, who received the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work on sustainable development and waste management. She is the lead representative on small-scale gold mining for IPEN, a global coalition of 700 nonprofit groups working to eliminate pollutants.
Indonesia and the Philippines are among more than 90 nations that have signed the Minamata Convention, a global pact to phase out mercury mining and reduce mercury emissions. Last month, the United States became the first to ratify the convention. The treaty encourages countries to reduce mercury use in gold mining but does not ban it.
In 2008, a gold rush in Central Sulawesi lured thousands of miners to the nearly 20,000-acre Poboya-Paneki park just south of the equator and about 45 minutes from the city of Palu, Indonesia.
For five years, the miners have carved up a mountain in the park, tunneling deep inside and breaking it apart rock by rock with hammers and crowbars. Today the bleak mountainside resembles a lunar prison colony. The sound of hammering fills the air as streams of miners carry 90-pound sacks of ore down paths of broken rock.
The miners know it is illegal to mine in the park but say police never enforce the law.
In their hurry to find gold, the miners make little effort to shore up their tunnels. Here and there, planks are wedged against cracked boulders to hold them in place, but collapses are common.
Some miners heat seams of quartz with a prandel, a 5-foot-long metal rod that shoots out fire. The flame creates a hellish glow in the tunnel as it softens the rock.
“It’s hot and dangerous,” said Errol Arnold, 34, a prandel operator who narrowly escaped a tunnel collapse in October that killed two friends.
Moments after he spoke, part of his tunnel collapsed with a resounding crash. More than 100 miners came rushing out of the warren of tunnels. They milled around for half an hour before deciding it was safe enough to go back.
Ridaeni, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was living in the village at the base of the mountain when the gold rush began. She claimed four mine shafts and pays miners a share to work them.
She estimates that more than 1,000 miners work on the mountain. Of these, about 50 to 100 are children, she said. Many more children work in other parts of the park where the mining has spread.
“A lot of children work here,” she said as she sat under a tarp near the opening of one of her mines. “Most of the kids are dropouts from school. Some start at age 5 pounding the rock with hammers, filling the bags and fetching water. It’s sad, but the parents come here for work. They travel as a family and work as a family.”
Nearby, Yoyo, 10, and his friend, Duku, 8, hammered on rocks to break them up. The two barefoot boys were working in a 20-foot-deep hole with Yoyo’s mother, grandmother and half a dozen other family members. Duku’s parents worked nearby. The boys loaded the broken rocks into bags and carried them to the surface.
Yoyo’s mother, Hayati, 29, applauded her son’s efforts.
“He loves to work here,” she said.
Yoyo, wearing filthy matching yellow shorts and shirt, has never been to school. He can’t read. He has never used a computer. Hayati said she makes less than $5 a day and cannot afford books and shoes for him. But she said she is not concerned about his future.
“It’s better to be with his family,” she said.
Asked if he wants to be a miner when he is older, Yoyo shyly hung his head, picked up a rock and began pounding it on a boulder.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I will let my mother decide. If I can, I would like to be a miner.”
From the mountain, the ore is trucked three miles downriver to a gold rush town of dusty streets and wooden shacks also named Poboya. Here, the ore is processed in hundreds of ball mills, open-sided structures with rows of rotating drums that grind the rock to dust. Workers put a pea-sized glob of mercury in the drum with the ore so the gold will stick together.
Later, miners use more mercury as they pan the crushed ore. To form the lump of metal, they often squeeze out the excess mercury using a filter made from umbrella fabric.
The final stage is burning off the mercury. On the main street of town, gold merchants have converted oil drums into makeshift fireplaces where they and the miners can torch their bits of metal.
BaliFokus, the environmental group, tested the air in 2011 and found that the level of mercury in Poboya was double the Indonesian safety standard and five times the threshold that would trigger an evacuation in the United States, Ismawati said. No government agency has taken action.
At the main intersection of town, miners come to Upriani’s small shop to buy mercury. She is the only dealer in town.
Upriani, 38, said she sells at least 35 kilograms a day for the equivalent of $133 each. She spends some of it buying gold from miners. At times, business is so brisk she shoves rupiah notes haphazardly into a desk drawer overflowing with cash.
“I will count it later,” she said.
After she first opened shop four years ago, police seized her mercury, she said. But instead of prosecuting her, the police introduced her to her current supplier, a well-connected businessman. She’s had no trouble with the law since.
She said she operates legally because her supplier has a permit. Authorities in Jakarta disagree, but she remains in business.
A mother of three, Upriani acknowledges that the constant processing of gold and burning of mercury endangers the health of the community and her family. But she has no qualms about supplying the toxic metal.
“I know it is dangerous, but distributing mercury supports the economy out here,” she said. “The miners need the mercury, and I need the gold.”
Environmental groups such as BaliFokus in Indonesia and Ban Toxics in the Philippines would like miners to abandon mercury for borax, a safe chemical that can extract more gold but requires more skill in panning.
But in most gold mining communities, mercury remains part of everyday life.
In Cisitu on the Indonesian island of Java, where small-scale gold miners have been using mercury for two decades, air sampling in August by BaliFokus found that levels in the ball mills and on a street where mercury is burned greatly exceeded the safety threshold.
In the Philippine town of Diwalwal on the southern island of Mindanao, miners have built mills beneath their houses and often burn their mercury there. The fumes waft up into the houses, slowly poisoning their families.
In the hillside village of Santa Barbara, nearly all of the 750 families make their living from mining. The community was largely unaffected by Typhoon Haiyan, which passed more than 260 miles to the south as it swept through the Philippines in November, killing more than 6,000 people. The miners suspended operations for one day in anticipation of the storm.
A creek runs through the village, and the houses facing it have ball mills instead of patios.
Many boys drop out of school to begin working in the mines on the mountainside. The miners cart ore home to the ball mills and load it into the drums. They pour in a bit of mercury, much of which will eventually end up in the creek.
At the Bocejo house, Romnick burned the amalgam in an open-sided shed with a thatched roof. The lump of metal sat on a workbench in a clay dish. The 16-year-old held the torch a few inches away from the metal and within a moment it was glowing red-hot.
Younger children came close to watch as the mercury fumes hung in the air. He made no effort to shoo them away.
“Most of the time when I am burning gold, I smell an odor,” he said. “I cover my mouth with my shirt. As of now, I don’t feel any problems.”
Journalists Debbie M. Price and Sol Vanzi, in Manila, contributed to this report. Larry C. Price is documenting child labor in developing countries as part of a long-term project funded by grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington. This story was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center and The Philadelphia Inquirer.