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Kristine Aghalaryan

Hazardous Mining: High Levels of Toxic Heavy Metals Found in Four Armenian Provinces

Test samples taken near mining operations in four provinces in Armenia have revealed heavy metal pollution in the environment and high concentrations of toxins in residents.

Valeriya Grechko, a representative of the Czech Arnica NGO, presented the results of their two-year research at the conference held today in Yerevan. Sampling was carried out in the Armenian provinces of Aragatzotn, Ararat, Kotayk and Lori. The research was carried out with Armenia’s Center for Community Mobilization and Support and the EcoLur NGOs, with the support of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Arnika focuses on biodiversity protection and eliminating toxic waste.

"Mining and ore processing activities have long been an integral part of Armenia's economy, providing valuable resources and employment opportunities. However, the lack of effective mitigation measures has resulted in a continuous release of toxic heavy metals into the environment. Our current findings provide a clear example of pollution in the vicinity of gold mines and related industries, not only in terms of soil, but also toxic substances in biological samples from local citizens. The set practice directly endangers their health with, for example, arsenic or mercury,” Grechko told the conference.

More than 130 samples were taken during 2022 and 2023.

The communities of Ararat and Surenavan communities were selected in Ararat Province. Lori samples were taken in Karaberd, Kotayk in Meghradzor, and Melikgyugh in Aragatzotn.

Ten major heavy metals were studied - arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, copper, chromium, zinc, iron and molybdenum. Samples were tested in two different laboratories in the Czech Republic.

Grechko claimed that all examinations were conducted anonymously, therefore there could be no question of manipulation.

In the Meghradzor settlement of the Tzaghkadzor community, where the Meghradzor gold-multi-metal mine operates, test samples were taken from the Meghradzor mine fills, adjacent lands, river sediments, gardens of Meghradzor residents, as well as biological samples from local residents. The concentration of arsenic in all soil samples exceeded the standards set for Armenian soil. In the test samples taken from the water flow coming out of the gold mine, the concentration of arsenic was 29.6 mg of arsenic per 1 kg of dry weight.

The lead concentration in the soil samples was also high, exceeding the world average and the standards set for Armenian soil. The chromium concentration is also high, and also does not meet the soil standards of Armenia. A high concentration of copper was found in samples taken from the accumulated waste, as well as from the bottom sediments of the water stream flowing out of the gold mine. Those samples also had high levels of mercury, nickel and zinc.

High concentrations of arsenic were found in biological samples taken from residents. The highest level of arsenic in urine in an adult woman reached 75 mg of creatinine per 1 gram of creatinine. In a five-year-old boy, the concentration of arsenic reached 37 mg. Lead, cadmium and nickel were found in almost all samples.

EcoLur President Inga Zarafyan said communities where residents raised ecological and health alarms were selected for testing.  

Sampling in Ararat and Surenavan was carried out in 2023. This is where the Ararat gold mining and the Ararat cement factories operate. Testing showed the area is moderately to strongly polluted by arsenic, and moderately polluted by chromium and nickel.

High concentrations of heavy metals - arsenic, nickel, lead and cadmium - were also found in Ararat community residents. They were also found in the gardens of community residents.

The highest concentration of arsenic was found in the area adjacent to the Ararat gold extraction plant. Arsenic concentrations in all soil samples exceeded the standards set for Armenian soil. Arsenic concentration in all urine samples averaged 14.28 mg. of arsenic per 1 gram of creatinine, which is higher than in European population groups.

Nickel concentrations in the soil samples averaged 57.8 mg of nickel per 1 kg of dry weight, which significantly exceeds both the global standards (13-37 mg of nickel per 1 kg of dry weight) and the standards set for Armenian soil. Nickel was detected in almost 80% of the urine samples, with an average of 0.61 mg of nickel per 1 kg of body weight.

Lead contamination was found in 40% of urine samples. Cadmium was found in 60% of hair samples and four urine samples.

High levels of arsenic content were also found in Karaberd and Melikgyugh. The Karaberd multi-metal mine operates in Karaberd. In Melikgyugh, there is a mine operated by Mego Gol" LLC and an abandoned tailings dump.

Tigran Matevosyan, chairman of the Armash Rural Communities Support and Development Center NGO, said while he hoped to see government officials at the conference, none showed up. He concluded they are not interested in public health, issues.

"We don't know what we are breathing, what we are drinking and eating. To get acquainted with all this, we need to go out, walk around and see," he said, "This is a violation of human rights at the state level." I've been breathing cement and drinking cyanide since the day I was born."

Center for Community Mobilization and Support President Oleg Dulgaryan noted the lack of health and risk prevention mechanisms for affected communities in Armenia.

"The population has the right to be healthy. We must have a healthy, strong generation. The state and mining companies bear this responsibility. Everyone agrees that they have a lot of work to do in this area. There’s a problem of policy implementation," he said.

Dulgaryan announced the launch of a chemical safety coalition that will undertake the protection of the interests and rights of residents of affected communities and will dialogue with government bodies.

Dulgaryan stressed that government inspectorates are understaffed, and pollution fines are so low that companies pay the fines and continue their same polluting activities.

Ashot Sargsyan, a representative of the Ararat Provincial Governor's office, said that emphasis should be placed on state policy, which aims to safeguard public health.


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