The copper mining region that spans northern Zambia and the southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a significant contributor to the global production of elements like cobalt — but that same production is also contributing to birth defects in the region, according to a study released in April.
Researchers at the University of Lubumbashi in the DRC, as well as the universities of Leuven and Ghent in Belgium, studied the effects of the pollution caused by cobalt mines and linked it to birth defects like limb abnormalities and cleft palates.
Cobalt is used to make batteries for smartphones, laptops, and electric cars. It is also used in the medical, military, and aircraft industries. Cobalt is mined globally, however, 60% of the global supply of the element comes from the DRC.
The study compared 138 newborn children of families in the copperbelt region with 108 children who were born in a non-mining area in Lubumbashi.
According to the study, the copper mining region between the DRC and Zambia is one of the 10 most polluted places in the world, with most of the pollution caused by mining activities.
One of the toxins in the copperbelt is sulphur dioxide, which can cause bronchitis, and a recent environmental study carried out in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province found that sulphur dioxide leads to acid rains, which destroys infrastructure as well as plants and animals.
Another toxin found in the copperbelt is particulate matter, which has been linked to asthma, stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease.
Particulate matter refers to particles like dust, smoke, and liquid found in the air. They pollute the air, water, and plants. The study by the universities in the DRC and Belgium also noted that high concentrations of several toxic metals have been reported in the general population of Katanga in the DRC, but the adverse health effects of this pollution have hardly been investigated.
"Although it’s still not clear how these birth defects arise, every day tens of thousands of workers are exposed to heavy work with a lot of pollutants and dust," Dr. Daan Van Brusselen, a paediatrician who worked on the study, told the Guardian.
He added that companies should be held accountable for putting profits before people, human rights, and the environment.