At a time when most African countries and the world at large are battling with the coronavirus which has infected millions and killed thousands across the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is waging a lone war against cobalt mine pollution. Researchers have linked exposure to mining pollutants to greatly increased risk of conditions such as spina bifida and limb abnormalities in new-born babies.
A medical study found that it is not only new-borns that are at risk but thousands of people who are exposed to dangerous levels of toxic pollution as they mine for cobalt in the African copper belt, a mining region that stretches across Zambia and the DRC. These miners are at a significantly higher risk of having children born with serious birth defects. Cobalt is used to make rechargeable batteries for smartphones, laptops, and electric cars.
Researchers from the University of Lubumbashi in the DRC and the universities of Leuven and Ghent in Belgium compared 138 newborn children of families within the copper belt with 108 children born outside the mining zone in Lubumbashi. It found that the risk of birth defects greatly increased when a parent worked in a copper and cobalt mine. The researchers linked the increased risk to the high levels of toxic pollution caused by the extraction of cobalt in southern Katanga, named one of the 10 most polluted areas in the world.
Although research into this phenomenon continues, it is not clear how these birth defects arise. Daily, tens of thousands of workers are exposed to heavy work with a lot of pollutants and dust. Cobalt mined in the DRC accounts for 60% of the global production of the mineral, which is essential to power rechargeable lithium batteries used in smartphones, tablets, electric cars, and laptops.
In recent years, pressure has been mounting on the multinational companies who continue to source cobalt from the DRC. Environment advocates are campaigning for the companies to address the human rights and environmental abuses that have been uncovered in mines across the country.
A legal battle was launched in the United States earlier this year. The ongoing lawsuit is accusing the world’s largest technology companies of aiding and abetting in the deaths of children working in mines in the DRC.