A photo of the Flambeau mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin, taken in 2007.
Cars, bikes, laptops, jewelry, forks, faucets, your dog’s water bowl. These ordinary object and more point to one conclusion: We all use metal. And why shouldn’t we? It’s a reusable resource, while plastic or paper goods are not. It can be melted down and recycled with relative ease. It is the cornerstone of modern civilization.
The problem, though, is how much the demand for metal — new metal, not reclaimed or recycled — continues to rise. To get it, more and more natural areas are being budged aside to unearth the ore underground. Mines are an unexpected visitor for ecosystems, and can disrupt the health of trees, streams and wildlife there.
Furthermore, these environmental effects trickle down to us — sometimes, in a big way.
When mining interacts directly with our natural environment, there can be impacts on our health, especially when it’s not done right. Keep in mind that mines have an impact long after they are no longer in operation, and need to be properly and consistently monitored to ensure our health and safety.
Although it varies among each mine, mining activities (from ore extraction to processing, handling, and transport) are commonly associated with public health problems in our air, soil and water:
- Air — Mining depends on equipment, generators and materials that generate hazardous air pollutants. The air becomes exposed to large amounts of sulfur dioxide, dust, and even heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium. Carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides can also be released during these processes.
- Soil — Toxic materials emitted into the air are eventually deposited in the soil, which will greatly affect plant quality.
- Water — Metals and other materials contaminate surface and groundwater. Sewage and other wastes in the places where mine workers live seep into waterways and contaminate small organisms. Tailings, or mining leftovers, must be diligently stored in a safe container that won’t overflow, to keep its harmful contents from seeping into drinking water. Accidents at a mine site can destroy water quality for generations.
Mining companies, or individuals living near a mine, might convince themselves that some of the side-effects aren’t really that bad in the long run. However, it’s important to think about our health as defined by the World Health Organization: A “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” And it doesn’t take a doctor to see that all of these effects on the environment translate to harm in our bodies.
Wisconsin is home to large deposits of iron. The direct effects of iron we can deal with: At its worst, iron will only cause discolored drinking water (according to the Wisconsin DNR). However, iron deposits do not contain purely iron. Other elements are commonly found in deposits of iron, such as aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, selenium, sulfur, titanium, and zinc. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that cadmium is known to cause kidney damage, copper causes liver and kidney damage with long term exposure and upset stomach with short term exposure. We also know that lead, another metal that can be exposed during mining, causes developmental disabilities and kidney problems. Plus, mining communities see increases in tuberculosis, asthma, chronic bronchitis and gastrointestinal diseases, says Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide.
Wisconsin families are accustomed to legislators that make safety and health a priority: When a child’s toy is found to be unsafe, it’s recalled; if the local grocer is selling tuna or tomatoes contaminated with salmonella, they’re refunded. So why is it any different for mining laws?
A big reason stems from being able to prove that mines are the definite cause of these harms to our health. Symptoms and illnesses might not occur until long after the mine is operating, and if there is no incentive to consistently test the mine that connection will not be made. They could even seem coincidental or unrelated, since people can get sick from a multitude of invisible causes these days: Who’s to say it’s the mine? It can be difficult to link health problems back to the source.
When focusing on the profits or benefits of a mining project, it can also be easy to overlook or underestimate the health risks that come with it. But any of the individual health risks mentioned above, while not necessarily life-threatening on their own, do contribute to larger threats and irreversible sickness.
Understandably, it can be tempting to focus on the positives more than potential harms — it’s a glass-half-full type of scenario. But if that water is contaminated and can cause health problems, we’d rather look at a different glass.
Written by Sarah Witman, Communications intern. Laura Green contributed to this post.