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Where’s The Harm – From Materials Extraction?

Open pit gold mine in New Zealand. Photo by iStockphoto.

Worker’s health:

The mining of raw materials for electronic products—including silicon, aluminum, copper, lead, and gold—contributes to increased respiratory problems for workers, such as silicosis, tuberculosis, bronchitis, and lung cancer. Gold mines are the leading source of mercury air pollution in the U.S.

Conflict minerals:

The mining of metals for electronic products is fueling a civil war that has resulted in the loss of more than five million lives so far and shocking human rights violations including mass slaughter and violent rape. A brutal war has been waging in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the past 15 years. The government and rebel armies finance their operations through mining tin, tantalum, and tungsten (known as the 3 Ts), as well as gold, for use in our cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and game devices.

This situation is well documented by The Enough Project‘s Raise Hope for the Congo campaign. They have been doing excellent work on this issue for many years.

How well are the electronics companies doing at keeping conflict minerals out of their supply chain? See the 2012 Conflict Minerals Electronics Company Rankings by Raise Hope For the Congo. Are you a college student interested in working with your college to be conflict mineral free? See their Conflict Free Campus Initiative, which offers tools and information to help you do this important work.

Environmental impacts:

Mining pollutes the water of surrounding communities through cyanide contaminated waste ore and other abandoned mine waste including toxic metals and acid, which often get released into lakes, streams and the ocean, killing fish and contaminating drinking water.

Waste production:

Mining for metals used in electronics is also extremely wasteful. For example, 80 tons of waste are generated from producing just one ounce of gold. A November 2012 story in Mother Jones magazine reveals that mining rare earth elements, used in all of our smart phones, requires extractors to separate them from the radioactive  elements thorium and uranium, with which they are always found. Managing the radioactive waste, once it’s separated from the rare earths, is a huge problem, often managed badly, allowing radiation harm to nearby residents or workers.

Over 10,000 people in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia protested the November 2012 opening of a new rare earth refinery in Kuantan, Malaysia, owned by Australian Lynas Corp, over concerns about how Lynas will manage the radioactive waste.  Appeals have been filed and will be heard in December. The rare earths are not mined in Malaysia – they will be brought over from Australia, by an Australian company, to be processed in this developing nation with weak environmental regulations.

Scarce resources: Increasingly dangerous extraction methods are used to retrieve scarce oil resources in order to produce the plastics that are used to make electronic components like computer and cell phone casings.

How minerals are used in electronics:

Oil drilling rig

Most of the plastics and many of the chemicals used in electronics are derived from oil. Photo by iStockphoto

  • Barium: used in the front panel of the cathode ray tube (CRT) in television screens to protect users from radiation.
  • Beryllium: used in electrical and electronic equipment as copper-beryllium alloys to make springs, relays and connections, and in computer motherboards.
  • Cadmium: used in contacts and switches, in electroplating, and in rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries used in many laptop computers.
  • Copper: copper wires are used due to the metal’s high electrical conductivity.
  • Gold: used in wiring and as a coating for wiring or contact points in memory cards.
  • Hexavalent Chromium: acts as a corrosion inhibitor and in hardening and corrosion protection in metal housings.
  • Lead: Metallic lead is used in electrical solder for printed circuit boards. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in TVs and computer monitors can contain between four to eight pounds of lead.
  • Mercury: used in lighting devices that illuminate flat screen displays.
  • Nickel: used in the manufacture of printed circuit boards, including nickel electroplating involving water-soluble nickel compounds.
  • Tin: primary metal contained in solder that is used to build printed circuit boards and electronic assemblies. Zinc: used in the manufacture of printed circuit boards.
  • Oil: used in plastic casings and other plastic components

Resources on human rights and sustainability in mining issues

Organizations:

Reports:

News Articles About Mining and Electronics:
  • Your Smartphones Dirty, Radioactive Secret  by Kiera Butler, Mother Jones Magazine, Nov/Dec 2012 issue.
    “My phone’s shady past, it turned out, began long before it was assembled in a Chinese factory. The elements used to power all our high-tech gadgets come from a very dirty industry in which rich nations extract the good stuff from the earth—and leave poor countries to clean up the mess.”
  • The Copper Age Returns (and Brings a Mess), by George Black, One Earth, December 6, 2012
    “But we’re talking here about much more than consumer electronics. In the case of copper, what’s at issue is the human and environmental price we’re willing to pay for a future of wind turbines, solar arrays, energy-efficient buildings, and hybrid vehicles.”