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Concern over old mercury leads to tests for today's Nome gold rushers

Alex DeMarban

Some of the droves of dredgers seeking gold off the shores of Nome, Alaska, are apparently pulling up mercury left behind by their historic counterparts early last century. Now, state officials concerned about mercury poisoning and other health effects are headed to the fabled city next week to test today's miners for exposure to the element.

Today's gold-seekers, featured in shows like Discovery Channel's "Bering Sea Gold," are finding old mercury that was used during Nome's first Gold Rush at the turn of the last century to concentrate gold flakes, said Ali Hamade, the manager of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Section of Epidemiology’s Environmental Public Health Program.

He worries the miners may be burning off the mercury and unintentionally inhaling fumes or absorbing toxic levels of mercury through other means. Mercury is the only metal known to exist as a liquid at common temperatures and pressures.

Mercury poisoning led to the creation of the English phrase "mad as a hatter" more than a hundred years ago to describe the tremors and dementia which wool felt-makers often developed as a result of exposure to its vapors. But mercury doesn’t just threaten the nervous system. It can wreak havoc on kidneys, blood pressure, and lead to other problems, said Hamade.

"It can be deposited in the food chain and travel by air to other people who can be exposed to it," Hamade said.  

The trip is partly a mission to learn more how miners are handling the mercury, he said.

Concerns over mercury levels at an abandoned mercury mine along the middle Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska have prompted Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup help.

As for Nome on the Bering Sea, Hamade and three other state officials are headed to the city of 3,700 for the free screenings. The collected urine samples will be shipped to Atlanta, Ga., for analysis. Results will hopefully return in a month or two and can be compared to a national database. Individual results will be sent to miners if they provide contact information.

The testing, in partnership with the city of Nome, will take place starting Wednesday, Aug. 29, in Nome's Public Health Center, and at the tent city on Nome's West Beach, where many of the miners camp. Testing will last four straight days, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

"We're hoping to catch as many miners as we can," Hamade said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com