The sustainability of cobalt is an important emerging issue because this critical base metal is an essential component of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. More than half of the world’s cobalt mine production comes from the Katanga Copperbelt in DR Congo, with a substantial proportion (estimated at 15–20%) being extracted by artisanal miners. Here we show, in a case study performed in the town of Kolwezi, that people living in a neighbourhood that had been transformed into an artisanal cobalt mine had much higher levels of cobalt in their urine and blood than people living in a nearby control area. The differences were most pronounced for children, in whom we also found evidence of exposure-related oxidative DNA damage. It was already known that industrial mining and processing of metals has led to severe environmental pollution in the region. This field study provides novel and robust empirical evidence that the artisanal extraction of cobalt that prevails in the DR Congo may cause toxic harm to vulnerable communities. This strengthens the conclusion that the currently existing cobalt supply chain is not sustainable.
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The (fully anonymized) data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
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We thank C. Cime Jinga, former mayor of Kolwezi, other local authorities, A. Makula and other local collaborators for their support and assistance during the surveys, and J. Van Damme for his help and support. We thank G. Deumer, W. Claassen and K. Coorevits for measuring trace elements by ICP-MS. The costs of metal analyses were covered by a VLIR-UOS grant (ZRDC2015PR090 to E.S., C.B.L.N. and B.N.) and by IDEWE (External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work, Heverlee, Belgium). The costs of the 8OHdG measurements were covered by a European Research Council grant to T.S.N. (ERC-2012-StG 310898). B.N. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript during a sabbatical leave (supported by grant K8.004.16N from FWO-Vlaanderen) at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), now Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal).
The authors declare no competing interests.
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