In many developing countries, large-scale mining operations are often linked to a variety of chronic negative health effects for those working in mines and among local populations. Mining tends to involve a variety of chemicals, (such as mercury and arsenic), and large amounts of water, which can affect local populations’ access to clean water. Chemical spills and water shortages caused by mining, and pollution from oil extraction can lead to poorer harvests and reduced fishing opportunities. This, in turn, can result in severe consequences for the local populations’ nutritional intake and livelihoods. Reports from mining regions in Asia, Africa, and South America illustrate how the extractive industries’ emissions of toxic chemicals in watercourses have caused cancer, renal failure, silicosis, skin conditions, birth defects, infertility, and a number of other diseases.
Coal dust from Colombia’s largest coal mine, Cerrejón, affects surrounding communities.
An estimated 1.6 million people in Johannesburg, South Africa, live in an area directly affected by toxic waste heaps, residue from gold mining in the now 600 decommissioned mines. The heaps contain toxic substances, including large amounts of uranium.
The local population breathes in poisonous particles present in the air, and the uranium gets into the groundwater through rainfall. From there, the poisons make their way to plants and animals. One study has put uranium levels in cattle in the affected area at 4,350 times above normal levels. The toxins are believed to cause diseases such as cancer, renal failure, reduced mental ability, and children with extensive birth defects. Doctors report of large numbers of patients with asthma and tuberculosis due to the emissions, and children who are born with severe disabilities are over-represented in the area. The extraction of gold is considered to have turned Johannesburg into one of the world’s most uranium-polluted cities.
“The dust gets into our food. We eat this dust, we drink this dust, that’s why so many people are sick here.” It’s a silent killer,” Tiny Dlamini tells Al Jazeera. Dlamini lives next to a waste heap in Dobonsville township.