Mining is commonly defined as the extraction of valuable minerals and other geological materials from the earth. It is one of the major economic activities that contribute to the advancement of economies worldwide, as the majority of countries that want to grow their economic muscle usually opt to exploit natural resources through mining.
In North America, for example, the mining industry employs an estimated one million people, and the industry in 1998 was estimated to be worth way more than $70 billion.
In countries like Peru and South Africa, mining activities contribute more than 11% and 27.4% of GDP, respectively. Nonetheless, the mining sector has a lot of negative health and environmental impacts, and sometimes, the health cost of mining activities can outweigh its benefits.
The mining industry generates wastes containing high concentrations of metals and metalloids, which are highly toxic to the environment. Moreover, the continued use of traditional mining methods intensifies the emission of toxic and non-ecofriendly products. This article details the causes and effects of mining on human health and the environment.
Various Causes of Mining
Some of the major causes of mining include but are not limited to the following:
1. Advancement in Technology
With the current advancement in technology and technological products such as cell phones, computers, and machinery, it is impossible to do away with mining. The demands for minerals from technological companies are increasing, and consequently, the need for mining activities to meet these demands.
For example, data from the US Mineral Information Institute indicate that in a single year, there are approximately 130 million cell phones decommissioned by their owners.
These cell phones contain an estimated 46 metric tons of silver, 2100 metric tons of copper, 2 metric tons of palladium, 46 metric tons of silver, and 0.04 metric tons of platinum.
The data shows that the amount of minerals required is still high yearly. To indicate how massive the industry is, studies conducted by the World Economy Forum prove that the industries that have ventured into mining and metal influence a one trillion economy.
2. Urbanization and Increased Population Growth
The world’s population is ever-growing. This increase, coupled with modernization and income growth, increases demand for residential and working building spaces, transportation vehicles, and consumer products. As a result, the need for more mined products increases.
3. Few Substitutes for Minerals
Suggestions mainly indicate that mining activities can only decrease if there are substitutes for the mined products. However, since substitutes are highly lacking, it remains nearly impossible to reduce mining activities. Recently, some companies are replacing metal with carbon fiber and gas for other fuel sources.
Despite the truth and the practicability of this substitution, studies by Yale University show that there is no such thing as a perfect replacement for all uses of a single item.
4. Mining Is an Economic Foundation in Some Countries
Most developing countries depend on mining for their economic growth. The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) reports that approximately 70 countries heavily rely on the mining industry.
Further studies indicate that mining activities constitute 60 to 90 percent of the total foreign direct investment for most countries in the category of low-middle income.
5. With Modernity and Technological Breakthroughs, the Industry Is Becoming More and More Sustainable
Top mining industries are making breakthroughs in technology and investing heavily in it as well. An example is the current use of sensing technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous systems, drones, simulations, and adaptive supply chains.
This silent reconnaissance in technological advancement is attracting new professionals and meeting the demands of the local society in providing a sustainable operation.
Effects of Mining on Human Health
Some of the main effects of mining on human health include:
1. Respiratory Complications
Studies indicate that mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world in terms of injuries, fatalities, and the long-term health effects associated with it. Long-term effects include respiratory problems such as pneumoconiosis, asbestosis, and silicosis.
The health effect of mining is based on the type of mining activities, namely deep mining and open-cast mining methods. A coal mine produces lots of dust, which, if inhaled, can lead to black lung disease among the miners and other people living within the surrounding region.
Due to blasting and drilling, the fine mineral particles of dust are inhaled and accumulate in the lung, causing pneumoconiosis. And when a miner inhales excessive amounts of quartz or crystalline silica, he or she is likely to suffer an irreversible disease called silicosis.
In addition, miners and people living around areas where radioactive gases such as Radon are emitted can suffer from long-term respiratory diseases such as lung cancer. Chronic exposure to welding fumes can also cause lung irritation and poisoning, and inhalation of mercury can lead to mercury poisoning.
2. Injuries and Fatalities
In 2006, a coal mine accident in China collapsed and caused the death of more than 4,700 people. Such accidents have been recorded in many mining sites across the world. There are reports of people injured by the rails that transport them to and from the ground. Others have had rocks collapsing on them as they mine.
Plus, some mining activities are associated with heavy lifting and shoveling, which can cause back injuries. Studies indicate that 22 percent of the total injuries reported in mining are due to slips and falls.
3. Cancers Due to Radioactive Material Exposure
People in industries that mine radioactive elements or in fields that generate hazardous gases such as Radon are in danger of having terminal diseases, especially cancers. Also, people living in these regions will be affected by radioactive materials.
4. Poisoning and Organ Damage Due to Heavy Metals Exposure
Mining activities ordinarily generate high concentrations of metals and metalloids. When these metals leach, they can reach the groundwater and surface water, find a way into the food chain, and even climb up it through bioaccumulation.
If a metal such as mercury is ingested, it can lead to high concentrations of poisoning, organ damage, and even death.
Effects of Mining on the Environment
Although mining is harmful to human health, humans aren’t the only affected. The effects of this activity extend to the environment. Let’s explore some of the effects of mining on our planet’s environment.
1. Water Pollution
If proper precautions are not taken, mining can adversely affect the surface and groundwater. Due to the high amount of chemicals that mining activities generate, unnaturally high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, and sulfuric acid will be deposited in the water bodies.
Massive contamination can also occur due to the water generated from the mining sites. This water is concentrated with high amounts of mining chemicals and metals from the ground ore.
Also, water produced from mine cooling, aqueous extraction, and mine drainage, among other mining activities, further augment the contamination of water surfaces.
Heavy metals can be transported into the groundwater by runoff, leading to devastating effects if consumed by humans or animals.
Examples are the Britannia Mine – a former copper mine in Vancouver, and the Tar Creek mine in Picher, Oklahoma, which reportedly has high levels of heavy metal contamination.
The exposed hillsides, tailing dams, and mine dumps become eroded through mining activities. Siltation of drainages and rivers due to erosion contributes to environmental degradation.
Shallow extraction techniques, geological discontinuity, and weak overburden can cause sinkholes, which create a large depression on the surface of the mining area.
3. Effects on Biodiversity
When mining, extensive areas of land and vegetation are cleared. The viability of the land for farming activities deteriorates, and animals lose their habitats. Biodiversity losses are, therefore, experienced in the area due to habitat modification in terms of factors such as pH changes and temperature changes.
The endemic species of the area will, as a result, be highly affected owing to their sensitivity to environmental changes. One important thing to note is that the impact of mining activities on biodiversity will depend on the bioavailability and morbidity of the contaminant.
When contaminants have low mobility, they stay inert in the mining area. Those with high mobility will move into another area occupied by organisms, leading to poisoning.
These animals are then consumed by those above them in the food chain, and this continues until the compounds move to the top of the chain. The toxic metals will move gradually from the consumer to the top of the chain through the feeding relationship.
5. Effect on Aquatic Animals
Mining activities can cause direct poisoning of marine animals when toxic chemicals and heavy metals are transported through runoff to the water bodies. Due to the bioavailability of these hazardous materials in the water, they can modify the pH, affecting the plants that the aquatic animals feed on.
There is also a physical effect caused by the silt deposited on the water surface as a result of mining, which can lead to reduced visibility and clogging of the respiratory surfaces of the aquatic animals.
6. Destruction and Loss of Vegetation Cover
Surface mining results in deforestation, which has long-term effects even after the mine has been decommissioned and the land refilled with soil and replanted. Besides, most plant species have a very low tolerance to high concentrations of metals in the soil, except for grass.
Plants intolerant to such conditions will fail to germinate in the reclaimed areas. Plants in such areas are normally affected through direct poisoning, modification of pH, clogging of their leaf surfaces by dust particles, or unavailability of nutrients.