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INTO THE DEPTHS: A miner descends into a tunnel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS3.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 9

TEKS: 6.5A, 7.8, 6.9C, 1.7F

The Real Cost of Batteries

In the heart of Africa, miners risk their lives for a vital element in your favorite devices  

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: Where do the materials used to make electronic devices come from?

JIM MCMAHON/MAPMAN®

Every day, millions of people casually turn on a smartphone or laptop. The screens light up almost instantly, allowing people to study, work, or connect with friends anywhere at any time. But many people don’t realize that this familiar act is made possible thanks to miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC, as it is also called, is a country in Central Africa (see map). The miners work in dangerous conditions to collect cobalt (Co), an essential ingredient in the rechargeable batteries that power electronic devices. 

Cobalt is a toxic material that can cause serious health problems. Miners—some as young as 7—gather it wearing no protective gear. The work is also problematic for people living near mining operations. Pollution from cobalt production contaminates residents’ homes and food supplies. And experts say that the problems surrounding cobalt mining may worsen as consumer demand for electronics continues to grow.

Every day, millions of people turn on a smartphone or laptop. The screens light up almost instantly. People can study, work, or connect with friends anywhere at any time. But many people don’t know that this simple act is made possible by miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC, as it is also called, is a country in Central Africa. The miners work in dangerous conditions to collect cobalt (Co). This metal is an important ingredient in the rechargeable batteries that power electronic devices. 

Cobalt is a toxic material that can cause serious health problems. Miners wear no protective gear when they gather it. Some are as young as 7. The work also causes problems for people living near mining operations. Pollution from mining gets into their homes and food supplies. And experts say that the problems linked to cobalt mining may get worse. The reason? Shoppers’ demand for electronics keeps growing.

POWERHOUSE ELEMENT

Cobalt is a silvery-gray metal. Pure cobalt isn’t found in nature because it reacts easily with other elements to form compounds. A compound is made of two or more chemically combined elements. Compounds containing cobalt are found in rocks and minerals. Workers mine and extract cobalt from these sources. 

Cobalt is used in many products, including jet engines, paint, and magnets. But its fastest-growing application is lithium-ion batteries. These rechargeable batteries power cell phones, laptops, and even electric vehicles. 

Cobalt is a silvery-gray metal. Pure cobalt isn’t found in nature. That’s because it bonds easily with other elements to form compounds. A compound is made of two or more chemically combined elements. Compounds containing cobalt are found in rocks and minerals. Workers mine and remove cobalt from these sources.

Cobalt is used in many products, such as jet engines, paint, and magnets. But its fastest-growing use is in lithium-ion batteries. These rechargeable batteries power cell phones and laptops. They even run electric vehicles.

WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES (COBALT NUGGETS); RUSS LAPPA/SCIENCE SOURCE (COBALT)

Inside a lithium-ion battery are compounds containing lithium and cobalt, such as lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2). They are the source of lithium ions. These positively-charged atoms move through a salt solution, producing the electrical current that powers devices (see How a Lithium-Ion Battery Works). Batteries made with lithium-cobalt compounds are relatively lightweight but still powerful. That’s why they’re so popular in mobile devices and electric vehicles.

A lithium-ion battery holds compounds that contain lithium and cobalt. One example is lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2). The compounds release lithium ions. These positively charged atoms move through a salt solution. They produce the electrical current that powers devices (see How a Lithium-Ion Battery Works). Batteries made with lithium-cobalt compounds are fairly lightweight. But they’re still powerful. That’s why they’re so popular in mobile devices and electric vehicles.  

Today about 110,000 tons of cobalt are mined every year. Roughly half of that goes to batteries. Demand for the metal is expected to increase dramatically, says analyst Caspar Rawles, who studies the global cobalt trade. He predicts that the amount of cobalt needed for battery manufacturing will likely double by 2025 (see Booming Cobalt Demand).

Today about 110,000 tons of cobalt are mined every year. About half of that goes to batteries. Demand for the metal is expected to increase greatly, says Caspar Rawles. He’s an analyst who studies the global cobalt trade. He predicts that the amount of cobalt needed for batteries will likely double by 2025 (see Booming Cobalt Demand).

GOING TO THE SOURCE

The DRC produces 60 percent of the world’s cobalt. The mining process is hazardous, and sometimes deadly. Many mines have been dug by hand using shovels, hammers, and chisels. Without proper supports, these mines are at risk of collapsing. Miners descend hundreds of feet without safety equipment such as helmets, gloves, or face masks. An estimated 100,000 people mine cobalt this way in the country.

The DRC produces 60 percent of the world’s cobalt. The mining process is dangerous and sometimes deadly. Many mines have been dug by hand with shovels, hammers, and chisels. Without the right supports, these mines could collapse. Miners go down hundreds of feet without safety equipment such as helmets, gloves, or face masks. About 100,000 people mine cobalt this way in the DRC.

“These miners go down with only rudimentary tools,” says Benoit Nemery, a public health researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium who has studied the environmental and human consequences of the DRC’s mining industry. “The work is very dangerous. Accidents are common.”  

There is little safety supervision for the miners. Thirteen people died in a mine collapse in 2015. The year before, 16 miners died in a landslide, and a fire killed another 15. In addition to accidents and injuries, the work carries long-term health risks. Cobalt dust, for example, can eventually cause lung disease.  

“These miners go down with only rudimentary tools,” says Benoit Nemery, a public health researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium. He’s studied the effects of the DRC’s mining industry on humans and the environment. “The work is very dangerous. Accidents are common.” 

The miners get little safety supervision. Thirteen people died in a mine collapse in 2015. The year before, 16 miners died in a landslide. A fire killed another 15. And accidents and injuries aren’t the only worries. The work also carries long-term health risks. For example, cobalt dust can cause lung disease over time.

MEINRAD SCHADE/LAIF/REDUX

GETTING TO MARKET: Miners transport sacks of cobalt ore by bicycle.

Child labor is also common. The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated in 2012 that about 40,000 children work in the mining industry in the southern DRC, mainly in cobalt and copper mines. In 2015, researchers from two human rights organizations visited five cobalt mines and interviewed 90 workers, including 17 children. A 14-year-old described working underground at age 12, sometimes for 24-hour shifts. “I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning,” he said. Many children work at the surface, sorting through and washing ore brought up from the mines. Ore is the raw material containing valuable minerals, in this case cobalt. 

Miners collect as much cobalt ore as they can. They transport it by bicycle or bus to nearby shops. On a good day, they may make $2 or $3 for their haul. 

Child labor is also common. The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated in 2012 that about 40,000 children work in the mining industry in the southern DRC. Most of them work in cobalt and copper mines. In 2015, researchers from two human rights organizations visited five cobalt mines. They spoke with 90 workers, including 17 children. A 14-year-old spoke about working underground at age 12, sometimes for 24-hour shifts. “I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning,” he said. Many children work at the surface. They sort through and wash ore brought up from the mines. Ore is the raw material that contains valuable minerals, in this case cobalt.

Miners collect as much cobalt ore as they can. They move it by bicycle or bus to nearby shops. On a good day, they may make $2 or $3 for their work.

MEINRAD SCHADE/LAIF/REDUX

CHILD LABOR: Children wash cobalt ore in a river in the DRC.

DANGEROUS DUST

Miners aren’t the only ones who face health consequences as a result of cobalt extraction. Nemery and his colleagues tested the urine of people who live near mines. “We found that they have very high levels of cobalt and other metals—even if they don’t work in the mines,” says Nemery. Not only is cobalt toxic at high levels, but to make matters worse, it’s almost always found with uranium (U) and often with arsenic (As). “So these communities are being exposed to a whole cocktail of toxic metals,” says Nemery.

People who live near mines or ore-processing areas are exposed to these elements through foods they eat, like fruits and vegetables. These crops take up pollutants when dust from the mines or from trucks transporting ore settles on the soil. Dust also makes its way into yards and homes, and children who play there get it in their mouths. 

Cobalt can cause problems affecting the heart, blood, and thyroid gland, which helps regulate growth and development. Uranium can damage the kidneys, and arsenic can cause cancer. 

Miners aren’t the only ones at risk. People who live near cobalt mines also face health problems. Nemery and his team tested the urine of these people. “We found that they have very high levels of cobalt and other metals—even if they don’t work in the mines,” says Nemery. Cobalt is toxic at high levels on its own. But to make matters worse, it’s almost always found with uranium (U) and often with arsenic (As). “So these communities are being exposed to a whole cocktail of toxic metals,” says Nemery.

People who live near mines or ore-processing areas take in these metals through foods they eat, like fruits and vegetables. Dust from the mines or from ore trucks settles on the soil. Then crops take up the pollutants. Dust also makes its way into yards and homes. Children who play there get it in their mouths.

Cobalt can cause problems for the heart and blood. It can also affect the thyroid gland, which helps control growth and development. Uranium can hurt the kidneys, and arsenic can cause cancer.

MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

AT HOME IN THE DRC: Cobalt dust that gets into local homes poses a health risk, especially for children.

NO EASY FIX

SOURCE: THE WASHINGTON POST

The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, so the problems of its mining industry aren’t easy to address. The country already has some environmental regulations and laws protecting children, for example, but they often aren’t enforced, says Nemery. 

Following an investigative report by The Washington Post in September, some companies that produce or use lithium-ion batteries promised to do a better job of making sure their cobalt is mined safely. In the meantime, says Nemery, it’s important to understand that “our smartphones and computers, and many other products we use every day, come at a very high human cost.” 

The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. That makes the problems of its mining industry hard to address. The country already has some laws to protect the environment and children, for example. But they often aren’t enforced, says Nemery.

The Washington Post released an investigative report about the problem in September. After that, some companies that produce or use lithium-ion batteries responded. They promised to do a better job of making sure their cobalt is mined safely. In the meantime, says Nemery, it’s important to understand that “our smartphones and computers, and many other products we use every day, come at a very high human cost.”

CORE QUESTION:  Imagine you are explaining the human toll of making rechargeable batteries to your friends. What would you tell them?

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