Sustainability of artisanal mining of cobalt in DR Congo

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Satellite images of Kolwezi and the study area.
Fig. 2: Concentrations of trace elements in surface dust and ore.
Fig. 3: Concentrations of cobalt, uranium and manganese in urine and blood.
Fig. 4: Relation between concentrations of cobalt and 8OHdG in urine.

Data availability

The (fully anonymized) data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

References

  1. 1.

    Harper, E. M., Kavlak, G. & Graedel, T. E. Tracking the metal of the goblins: cobalt’s cycle of use. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 1079–1086 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Cobalt uses. Cobalt Institute www.cobaltinstitute.org/core-applications.html (2017).

  3. 3.

    Shedd, K. B., Mccullough, E. A. & Bleiwas, D. I. Global trends affecting the supply. Min. Eng. 69, 37–42 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Nelson, E. Digging for blue: electric cars have made this once obscure metal the hottest commodity of 2017. Quartz (18 December 2017).

  5. 5.

    Schmidt, T., Buchert, M. & Schebek, L. Investigation of the primary production routes of nickel and cobalt products used for Li-ion batteries. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 112, 107–122 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Olivetti, E. A., Ceder, G., Gaustad, G. G. & Fu, X. Lithium-ion battery supply chain considerations: analysis of potential bottlenecks in critical metals. Joule 1, 229–243 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Critical raw materials. European Commission go.nature.com/2PL5wFM (2017).

  8. 8.

    Final List of Critical Minerals 23295–23296 (Federal Register, 2018); go.nature.com/2Pl1Ol5

  9. 9.

    Wilburn, D. R. Cobalt Mineral Exploration and Supply from 1995 Through 2013 Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5084 (US Geological Survey, 2012).

  10. 10.

    World Development Indicators: Congo, Dem. Rep. (World Bank, accessed 22 February 2018); data.worldbank.org/country/congo-dem-rep#cp-wdi

  11. 11.

    Worldwide Governance Indicators (World Bank, accessed 22 February 2018); info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/index.aspx#reports

  12. 12.

    Hsu, A. et al. 2016 Environmental Performance Index (Yale Univ., New Haven, CT, 2016); epi2016.yale.edu/reports/2016-report

  13. 13.

    Milesi, J. P. et al. An overview of the geology and major ore deposits of Central Africa: explanatory note for the 1:4,000,000 map ‘Geology and major ore deposits of Central Africa’. J. African Earth Sci. 44, 571–595 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Banza, C. L. N. et al. High human exposure to cobalt and other metals in Katanga, a mining area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Environ. Res. 109, 745–752 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    De Putter, T., Decrée, S., Nkulu, C. B. L. & Nemery, B. Mining the Katanga (DRC) Copperbelt: geological aspects and impacts on public health and the environment — towards a holistic approach. In IGCP/SIDA Project 594, Inaugural Workshop, Kitwe, Zambia (ed. Kribek, B.) 14–17 (Czech Geological Survey, 2011); www.geology.cz/igcp594/kitwe/PROCEEDINGS-OF-THE%20WORKSHOP.pdf

  16. 16.

    Cuvelier, J. Work and masculinity in Katanga’s artisanal mines. Afr. Spectr. 49, 3–26 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Elenge, M. M. & De Brouwer, C. Identification of hazards in the workplaces of artisanal mining in Katanga. Int. J. Occup. Med. Environ. Health 24, 57–66 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    “This is What We Die For.” Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt (Amnesty International, 2016); https://www.amnesty.org/es/documents/afr62/3183/2016/en/

  19. 19.

    Tsurukawa, N., Prakash, S. & Manhart, A. Social Impacts of Artisanal Cobalt Mining in Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo (Öko-Institut, 2011); www.oeko.de/oekodoc/1294/2011-419-en.pdf

  20. 20.

    Cobalt from the DRC — Potential, Risks and Significance for the Global Cobalt Market v. 53 (Commodity Top News, BGR, 2017); go.nature.com/2Pl3URZ

  21. 21.

    Frankel, T. C. The cobalt pipeline: tracing the path from deadly hand-dug mines in Congo to consumers’ phones and laptops. The Washington Post (30 September 2016); https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/

  22. 22.

    Soil, Ground Water and Sediment Standards for Use under Part XV.1 of the Environmental Protection Act PIBS#7382e01 (Canadian Ministry of the Environment, 2011); https://www.ontario.ca/page/soil-ground-water-and-sediment-standards-use-under-part-xv1-environmental-protection-act

  23. 23.

    Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality 4th edn (World Health Organization, 2011); www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/2011/9789241548151_toc.pdf

  24. 24.

    Gibb, H. & O’Leary, K. G. Mercury exposure and health impacts among individuals in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining community: a comprehensive review. Environ. Health Perspect. 122, 667–672 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Dooyema, C. A. et al. Outbreak of fatal childhood lead poisoning related to artisanal gold mining in northwestern Nigeria, 2010. Environ. Health Perspect. 120, 601–607 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    2015 TLVs and BEIs. Threshold Limit Values for Chemical Substances and Physical Agents and Biological Exposure Indices (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, 2015).

  27. 27.

    Lison, D. in Handbook on the Toxicology of Metals 4th edn, Vol. II (eds. Nordberg, G. F., Fowler, B. A. & Nordberg, M.) 743–763 (Academic Press, Elsevier, 2015).

  28. 28.

    Lison, D., Buchet, J. P., Swennen, B., Molders, J. & Lauwerys, R. Biological monitoring of workers exposed to cobalt metal, salt, oxides, and hard metal dust. Occup. Environ. Med. 51, 447–450 (1994).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, 2009: Updated tables, February 2015 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015).

  30. 30.

    Hoet, P., Jacquerye, C., Deumer, G., Lison, D. & Haufroid, V. Reference values and upper reference limits for 26 trace elements in the urine of adults living in Belgium. Clin. Chem. Lab. Med. 51, 839–849 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Nisse, C. et al. Blood and urinary levels of metals and metalloids in the general adult population of Northern France: the IMEPOGE study, 2008–2010. Int. J. Hyg. Environ. Health 220, 341–363 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Mees, F. et al. Concentrations and forms of heavy metals around two ore processing sites in Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo. J. Afr. Earth Sci. 77, 22–30 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    André, G. & Godin, M. Child labour, agency and family dynamics: the case of mining in Katanga (DRC). Childhood. 21, 161–174 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Landrigan, P. J., Kimmel, C. A., Correa, A. & Eskenazi, B. Children’s health and the environment: public health issues and challenges for risk assessment. Environ. Health Perspect. 112, 257–265 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Cheyns, K. et al. Pathways of human exposure to cobalt in Katanga, a mining area of the D.R. Congo. Sci. Total Environ. 490, 313–321 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    US EPA Exposure Factors Handbook 2011 Edition (Final Report) (US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington DC, 2011).

  37. 37.

    Orloff, K. G. et al. Human exposure to uranium in groundwater. Environ. Res. 94, 319–326 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Hao, Z. et al. Levels of rare earth elements, heavy metals and uranium in a population living in Baiyun Obo, Inner Mongolia, China: a pilot study. Chemosphere 128, 161–170 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Lourenço, J. et al. Biomonitoring a human population inhabiting nearby a deactivated uranium mine. Toxicology 305, 89–98 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Baker, M. G. et al. Blood manganese as an exposure biomarker: state of the evidence. J. Occup. Environ. Hyg. 11, 210–217 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Loft, S., Fischer-Nielsen, A., Jeding, I. B., Vistisen, K. & Poulsen, H. E. 8-Hydroxydeoxyguanosine as a urinary biomarker of oxidative DNA damage. J. Toxicol. Environ. Health 40, 391–404 (1993).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Barregard, L. et al. Human and methodological sources of variability in the measurement of urinary 8-oxo-7,8-dihydro-2′-deoxyguanosine. Antioxid. Redox. Signal. 18, 2377–2391 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Paustenbach, D. J., Tvermoes, B. E., Unice, K. M., Finley, B. L. & Kerger, B. D. A review of the health hazards posed by cobalt. Crit. Rev. Toxicol. 43, 316–362 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Grandjean, P. & Landrigan, P. J. Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. Lancet Neurol. 13, 330–338 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Dinocourt, C., Legrand, M., Dublineau, I. & Lestaevel, P. The neurotoxicology of uranium. Toxicology 337, 58–71 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Faber, B., Krause, B. & Sánchez De LaSierra, R. Artisanal Mining, Livelihoods, and Child Labor in the Cobalt Supply Chain of the Democratic Republic of Congo Policy Report (Center for Effective Global Action, 2017); cega.berkeley.edu/assets/cega_research_projects/179/CEGA_Report_v2.pdf

  47. 47.

    Squadrone, S. et al. Human exposure to metals due to consumption of fish from an artificial lake basin close to an active mining area in Katanga (D.R. Congo). Sci. Total Environ. 568, 679–684 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Bridge, G. Contested terrain: mining and the environment. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 29, 205–259 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    De Putter, T. & Decrée, S. Le potentiel minier de la République démocratique du Congo (RDC): mythes et composantes d’une dynamique minière. In Conjonctures Congolaises 2012: Politique, Secteur Minier et Gestion des Ressources Naturelles en RDC (eds. Marysse, S. & Omasombo, J.) 47–62 (MRAC, L’Harmattan, 2013).

  50. 50.

    Trefon, T. Congo’s Environmental Paradox — Potential and Predation in a Land of Plenty (Zed Books, London, 2016).

  51. 51.

    Geenen, S. A dangerous bet: the challenges of formalizing artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Resour. Policy 37, 322–330 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Hilson, G., Hilson, A., Maconachie, R., McQuilken, J. & Goumandakoye, H. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) in sub-Saharan Africa: re-conceptualizing formalization and ‘illegal’ activity. Geoforum 83, 80–90 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    De Putter, T. & Delvaux, C. Certifier les ressources minérales critiques dans la région des Grands lacs. Polit. Etrang. 78, 99–112 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Trefon, T. & De Putter, T. Ressources Naturelles et Développement: le Paradoxe Congolais (MRAC, L’Harmattan, Belgium, 2017).

  55. 55.

    Cocker, J., Mason, H. J., Warren, N. D. & Cotton, R. J. Creatinine adjustment of biological monitoring results. Occup. Med. 61, 349–353 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Sughis, M., Nawrot, T. S., Haufroid, V. & Nemery, B. Adverse health effects of child labor: high exposure to chromium and oxidative DNA damage in children manufacturing surgical instruments. Environ. Health Perspect. 120, 1469–1474 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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).

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

C.B.L.N. and B.N. conceived the study, did the fieldwork, collected the samples and wrote the manuscript. T.K.-K., P.M.O. and D.K.W.M. assisted with the processing of samples. L.C. performed the statistical analyses. V.H. was responsible for the analyses of metals in human samples. E.S. was responsible for the analyses of metals in environmental samples. N.D.S. performed the measurements of 8OHdG under the supervision of T.S.N. T.D.P. gave advice on geology and policy issues. J.-M.L.I. gave advice on geology. O.L.N. gave advice on child health. All authors gave input to successive drafts of the manuscript and approved its final version. C.B.L.N. and B.N. had full access to all the data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benoit Nemery.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–2, Supplementary Tables 1–6

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Banza Lubaba Nkulu, C., Casas, L., Haufroid, V. et al. Sustainability of artisanal mining of cobalt in DR Congo. Nat Sustain 1, 495–504 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0139-4

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing