AROUND 2,000 BCE Small-scale gold mining operations around the world still use mercury in the extraction process
Mercury is believed to have been discovered and used by the ancient peoples of China and India before 2,000 BCE and it has also been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1,500 BCE. Mercury is the Roman name for the Greek god Hermes and the namesake of the fastest moving planet in the Solar System. It was even given the nickname “quicksilver” because of its mobility and shiny surface.
When mercury was first discovered, many civilisations believed that the association the element had with the planet meant that the metal had mystical properties. The Egyptians and Chinese also believed that mercury had the power to ward off evil spirits. Ancient peoples began to realise that its usefulness as a metal was limited due to its poisonous nature and scarcity, and as such moved towards limiting its use. Today, mercury is no longer used in consumer related items such as thermometers and batteries. Small-scale gold mining operations around the world still use mercury in the extraction process and are responsible for the release of hazardous mercury vapour in significant quantities.