JUNE 2015, SINGU TOWNSHIP, Mandalay Region — Amid a stifling and damp atmosphere, air opaque from fine rock dust, half a dozen miners are hard at work, their silhouettes moving against the glow of tungsten bulbs strung along the mine shaft. Their headlamps emit streams of cold, blue light, illuminating faces, hands, piping and the metal surface of a pneumatic drill.
The miners’ voices ricochet in the cramped space. They struggle to bind pieces of the drill together with rope and maneuver it into place at the end of the mine shaft. A few seconds of silence are broken by the deafening sound of the drill as it begins to dislodge chunks of rock. More dust fills the air. Some miners have helmets and all are outfitted in cheap football shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. No one wears a mask.
Here, east of Mandalay city on the edge of Myanmar's dry, central zone, poor rural communities have long relied on gold mining for their survival. After sluicing and panning by hand first revealed the presence of gold, traditional mining methods gave way to dynamite, drills and chemicals like cyanide and mercury used on industrial-scale sites. Most of the mines are run as informal businesses owned by locals, and are underground.
The operations by these workers provide a much-needed source of income in this impoverished, drought-stricken area, but a lack of regulations on mining causes environmental impacts and hazardous working conditions that adversely affect local people. A nearby gold mining concession operated by a mining company has, meanwhile, also taken its toll on the environment and local communities.
Polluted land, ‘gun disease’ in the lungs
The open-pit mine — reportedly operated by Thaidi Aung Shwe Moe company, which is owned by Chinese and Burmese businessmen — has been carved into the landscape. Covering 20 acres at its inception in 2010, it has expanded to a vast, unknown size, impacting surrounding villages including the village of Yay Myit. Residents here claim they were never consulted or told about the expansion.
The village now sits on top of approximately six feet of sand. This mining waste dumped by the company, infertile sand and gravel, was washed down the mountainside during the monsoon rains. Inhabitants of Yay Myit say that this process has also rendered large portions of the surrounding farmland infertile.
The techniques used by the small-scale mining businesses have given rise to health complaints that have yet to be medically examined and understood. An estimated 100 deaths in recent years have been attributed to “gun disease,” so called by the miners because they believe it is caused by breathing in dust created by pneumatic drills (colloquially called “guns” in Burmese). Those with the condition exhibit symptoms like emaciation, coughing, and difficulty breathing, symptoms that are also associated with tuberculosis (TB).
The miners’ symptoms seem to be consistent with silicosis, an infection of the lungs common among miners and stone workers caused by breathing in fine, silica dust. A silicosis infection also makes a person susceptible to TB. Though miners have stopped working at sites associated with contracting “gun disease,” communities remain exposed to this and other health issues in the absence of proper diagnosis and medical attention.
Medical challenges are compounded by a lack of local knowledge about health risks and limited treatment options.
A worker named Ko Maw Gyi, from Chaungyi Village, said he was unable to fully recover from TB despite taking two full courses of medication. Though his fever and night sweats have vanished, he says he cannot gain weight and still experiences difficulty breathing. However, a fear of reporting these lingering symptoms and the failure of his treatment to his doctor, who is often viewed as person of a high authority, kept him from seeking further diagnosis.
Uncontrolled use of chemicals
Workers also routinely handle mercury and cyanide without protective gear. Though the chemicals are reportedly banned in Myanmar mining contracts, they are used in locally owned mines and authorities refrain from interfering; in fact, some local mine owners openly admit to using the chemicals, apparently unafraid of the consequences. In the case of the open-pit mine, truckloads of rock are allegedly driven to an off-site facility where large quantities of cyanide are used in mineral extraction.
Lack of environmental monitoring and law enforcement oversight creates risks that waste from this process will contaminate water and soil in the area. While long-term effects of chemical use in mining have not been scientifically documented here, locals say they have seen masses of dead fish in nearby waterways.