Cyanide hazards to plants and animals from gold mining and related water issues

Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2004;183:21-54. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4419-9100-3_2.


Cyanide extraction of gold through milling of high-grade ores and heap leaching of low-grade ores requires cycling of millions of liters of alkaline water containing high concentrations of potentially toxic sodium cyanide (NaCN), free cyanide, and metal-cyanide complexes. Some milling operations result in tailings ponds of 150 ha and larger. Heap leach operations that spray or drip cyanide onto the flattened top of the ore heap require solution processing ponds of about 1 ha in surface area. Puddles of various sizes may occur on the top of heaps, where the highest concentrations of NaCN are found. Solution recovery channels are usually constructed at the base of leach heaps, some of which may be exposed. All these cyanide-containing water bodies are hazardous to wildlife, especially migratory waterfowl and bats, if not properly managed. Accidental spills of cyanide solutions into rivers and streams have produced massive kills of fish and other aquatic biota. Freshwater fish are the most cyanide-sensitive group of aquatic organisms tested, with high mortality documented at free cyanide concentrations >20 microg/L and adverse effects on swimming and reproduction at >5 microg/L. Exclusion from cyanide solutions or reductions of cyanide concentrations to nontoxic levels are the only certain methods of protecting terrestrial vertebrate wildlife from cyanide poisoning; a variety of exclusion/cyanide reduction techniques are presented and discussed. Additional research is recommended on (1) effects of low-level, long-term, cyanide intoxication in birds and mammals by oral and inhalation routes in the vicinity of high cyanide concentrations; (2) long-term effects of low concentrations of cyanide on aquatic biota; (3) adaptive resistance to cyanide; and (4) usefulness of various biochemical indicators of cyanide poisoning. To prevent flooding in mine open pits, and to enable earth moving on a large scale, it is often necessary to withdraw groundwater and use it for irrigation, discharge it to rapid infiltration basins, or, in some cases, discharge it to surface waters. Surface waters are diverted around surface mining operations. Adverse effects of groundwater drawdown include formation of sinkholes within 5 km of groundwater drawdown; reduced stream flows with reduced quantities of wate available for irrigation, stock watering, and domestic, mining and milling, and municipal uses; reduction or loss of vegetation cover for wildlife, with reduced carrying capacity for terrestrial wildlife; loss of aquatic habitat for native fishes and their prey; and disruption of Native American cultural traditions. Surface discharge of excess mine dewatering water and other waters to main waterways may contain excess quantities of arsenic, total dissolved solids, boron, copper, fluoride, and zinc. When mining operations cease, and the water pumps are dismantled, these large open pits may slowly fill with water, forming lakes. The water quality of pit lakes may present a variety of pressing environmental problems.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods
  • Environmental Pollution*
  • Gold*
  • Mining*
  • Plants / metabolism*
  • Sodium Cyanide / toxicity*
  • Soil Pollutants / analysis
  • Vertebrates / metabolism*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis


  • Soil Pollutants
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Gold
  • Sodium Cyanide