Raising the Bar on Gold Gold Jewelry Has Major Impacts on the Environment, Even After the Mines Have Closed

Producing just a third of an ounce of gold for a wedding band can generate 20 tons of mine waste and much of that waste is contaminated with toxic chemicals like mercury and cyanide. The waste then leaches into soil and groundwater, putting mine workers and local residents at risk of health problems like nervous system damage.

Kim Seng
A gold mining camp in Thailand.

“Something as small as a gold wedding band or a tiny speck of gold in your cell phone can have a significant impact on people’s lands and lives halfway around the world,” says Payal Sampat of Earthworks, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting mining communities and their environment. And operating mines are only one part of the problem. Mines that have been closed for decades become Superfund sites, or sites that have been granted emergency response cleanup by the U.S. government for hazardous substances released into the environment. Iron Mountain in California produced 265,314 ounces of gold before it closed in 1963 but left thousands of salmon, trout and other organisms dead or struggling for survival downstream for generations after its closing.

In 2004, Earthworks launched the No Dirty Gold campaign to end the environmental and social impacts of mining. More than 80 of the world’s largest leading jewelry companies have signed on, including Tiffany & Co, Helzberg Diamonds, Zales, Target, Sears, Kmart and JCPenney.

“Jewelry accounts for 80% of gold mine production, so this is a very important voice,” Sampat says. “Does your wedding ring have to come at the cost of people’s health? That shouldn’t have to be a trade off.”