|May 29, 2012
With the price of gold reaching a record last year, Segovia is a boomtown in the 19th century style, with casinos and brothels squeezed between mining businesses along its main streets. It’s also likely one of the most poisonous towns in the world. That’s because the cheapest, easiest way for miners to refine gold is to mix it with a potentially lethal agent: mercury, aka quicksilver.
The town is awash in mercury, which even in small doses can damage the central nervous system and the lungs or cause birth defects. Children are especially vulnerable. At least a dozen businesses along Segovia’s main drag sell mercury to prospectors, ladling it out a few ounces at a time into small plastic bottles with blue screw tops.
Mercury also comes in shiny, steel cylinders that hold 76.5 pounds of it, like those locked in a shed at Cardona’s mine. There, a few feet from a picnic table where workers gather for breaks, a dark and silvery slush of mercury, rock and water flows from processing barrels into a wide, cement gutter beside a mound of gray rock. Nearby, locals bathe their dogs in a creek, believing the mercury that fills it will cure mange.