The Hidden Costs of Mining in DR Congo

The major problem is the dust — containing cobalt and many other metals, including uranium — that is released during the mining process and settles on the ground.   (Image:  Julien Harneis via   flickr /  CC BY-SA 2.0)
The major problem is the dust — containing cobalt and many other metals, including uranium — that is released during the mining process and settles on the ground. (Image: Julien Harneis via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cobalt mining comes at a great cost to public health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. New research reveals that children are particularly vulnerable — their urine and blood samples contain high concentrations of cobalt and other metals. In past years, the demand for cobalt has been on the increase due to its many applications.

For one thing, the metal is a crucial component of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and electric cars. Around 60 percent of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the mineral-rich Katanga Copper belt, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Researchers at KU Leuven and the University of Lubumbashi have now shown that cobalt mining takes a high toll on both the creuseurs — the “diggers” who work in the mines, often by hand — and on the environment.

Previous research by KU Leuven and the University of Lubumbashi (2009) had already found high concentrations of trace metals in the urine of people living close to mines. The new case study, published in Nature Sustainability, confirms the health risks of cobalt mining.

Mine dust in Kasulo

The researchers conducted a case study in Kasulo, an urban neighborhood in Kolwezi, in the heart of the Congolese mining area. When cobalt ore was discovered under one of the houses there, the entire area quickly became an artisanal mine. The houses are now interspersed with dozens of mine pits where hundreds of creuseurs hunt for cobalt. Most residents remained in the area.

When cobalt ore was discovered under one of the houses there, the entire area quickly became an artisanal mine. (Image: Julien Harneis via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

When cobalt ore was discovered under one of the houses there, the entire area quickly became an artisanal mine. (Image: Julien Harneis via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

The major problem is the dust — containing cobalt and many other metals, including uranium — that is released during the mining process and settles on the ground.

Too much cobalt in children’s urine

The researchers collected blood and urine samples from 72 Kasulo residents, including 32 children. A control group with a similar composition was selected in a neighboring district. According to Professor Nemery, a doctor-toxicologist at the KU Leuven Department of Public Health and Primary Care, the results of their study are worrisome:

“Children living in the mining district had ten times as much cobalt in their urine as children living elsewhere. Their values were much higher than what we’d accept for European factory workers." (Image: Julien Harneis via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Children living in the mining district had ten times as much cobalt in their urine as children living elsewhere. Their values were much higher than what we’d accept for European factory workers.
(Image: Julien Harneis via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Detrimental effects on public health and society

The long-term consequences of this increased exposure to cobalt are not  clear (yet), but Professor Nemery is not optimistic, saying:

According to Professor Nemery, artisanal cobalt mining causes other problems as well, adding:

Provided by: KU Leuven [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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