A report highlights the link between pollution and birth defects in children of DRC cobalt miners

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Article
6 May 2020

Pollution causing birth defects in children of DRC cobalt miners – study

Author: Annie Kelly, The Guardian (UK)

Researchers link exposure to mining pollutants to greatly increased risk of conditions such as spina bifida and limb abnormalities...

Thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are being exposed to dangerous levels of toxic pollution that is causing birth defects in their children as they mine for cobalt used to make rechargeable batteries for smartphones, laptops and electric cars, a new medical study has found. Research published in the Lancet last week found that local people working in mines in the African “copperbelt”, a mining region stretching across Zambia and the DRC, are at significantly higher risk of having children born with serious birth defects...

Researchers from the University of Lubumbashi in the DRC and the universities of Leuven and Ghent in Belgium compared 138 newborn children of families within the copperbelt with 108 children born outside the mining zone in Lubumbashi. It found that the risk of birth defects greatly increased when a parent worked in a copper and cobalt mine. The researchers linked the increased risk to the high levels of toxic pollution caused by the extraction of cobalt in southern Katanga, named one of the 10 most polluted areas in the world. The study was commissioned after academics at the University of Leuven read reports from local doctors, NGOs and local authorities of high numbers of children of miners in the DRC being born with conditions such as limb abnormalities, cleft palates and neural tube defects such as spina bifida...

“This is the first study investigating the effects of mining-related pollution on newborns in sub-Saharan Africa and has shown that metal miners are indeed at increased risk of having a child with a birth defect.” said Dr Daan Van Brusselen, a paediatrician at Ghent University who worked on the study alongside doctors in Belgium and the DRC. “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. The health of the miners and their families must be taken into account by anyone who profits from or uses cheap smartphones around the world,” he said...

Cobalt mined in the DRC accounts for 60% of global production of the mineral, which is essential to power rechargeable lithium batteries used in smartphones, tablets, electric cars and laptops.

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Article
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Author: Amnesty International

En réaction aux recherches publiées récemment par les universités de Lubumbashi, de Louvain et de Gand, qui établissent que l’exposition des mineurs de cobalt et de cuivre à des substances toxiques en République démocratique du Congo (RDC) est à l’origine de malformations congénitales chez leurs enfants, Mark Dummett, responsable du programme Entreprises, sécurité et droits humains, à Amnesty International, a déclaré :

« Dans cette région de la RDC, l’une des choses les plus frappantes est la pollution et le fait que l’État et les entreprises minières ne font pratiquement rien pour prévenir la pollution et protéger les personnes qui vivent et travaillent là. Il est totalement impossible d’échapper à la poussière. »

« Lors de notre première visite des mines, en 2015, nous avons vu des hommes, des femmes et des enfants travailler sans même les équipements de protection les plus élémentaires, à savoir des gants et des masques, et des mineurs nous ont parlé de leurs problèmes de santé, notamment la toux, les douleurs pulmonaires et les infections urinaires. Dans un village, des personnes nous ont montré l’eau qu’elles buvaient, qui provenait d’un ruisseau contaminé, selon elles, par les déchets d’une usine de traitement de minerai... »

« Les conclusions alarmantes qui figurent dans le rapport laissent à penser que les dommages causés risquent d’être durables. Il est donc nécessaire de mieux réglementer le secteur minier afin de contraindre les entreprises à protéger l’environnement et leurs employés. Par ailleurs, les multinationales qui tirent des bénéfices de ces mines doivent respecter les droits humains, comme elles en ont l’obligation, en veillant à prévenir la pollution qui nuit à la population et à la planète. Il est également indispensable qu’elles indemnisent les personnes auxquelles leurs activités ont porté préjudice. Le secteur minier de la RDC doit profiter à la population locale, pas seulement à de puissantes entreprises. »

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Report
1 April 2020

Metal mining and birth defects: a case-control study in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Author: Daan Van Brusselen, Tony Kayembe-Kitenge and others, The Lancet (UK)

Widespread environmental contamination caused by mining of copper and cobalt has led to concerns about the possible association between birth defects and exposure to several toxic metals in southern Katanga, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We therefore aimed to assess the possible contribution of parental and antenatal exposure to trace metals to the occurrence of visible birth defects among neonates...

Our study included 138 neonates with visible birth defects (about 0·1% of the 133662 births in Lubumbashi during the study period) and 108 control neonates. Potential confounders were similarly distributed between cases and controls. Vitamin consumption during pregnancy was associated with a lower risk of birth defects (adjusted odds ratio 0·2, 95% CI 0·1–0·5). Mothers having paid jobs outside the home (2·8, 1·2–6·9) and fathers having mining-related jobs (5·5, 1·2–25·0) were associated with a higher risk of birth defects. We found no associations for trace metal concentrations in biological samples, except for a doubling of manganese (Mn; 1·7, 1·1–2·7) and zinc (Zn; 1·6, 0·9–2·8) in cord blood. In a separate model including placentas, a doubling of Mn at the fetal side of the placenta was associated with an increased risk of birth defects (3·3, 1·2–8·0), as was a doubling of cord blood Zn (5·3, 1·6–16·6).

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