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8 Jun 2023

Rachel Chason & Ilan Godfrey, The Washington Post

S. Africa: Manganese takes toll on the health of mine workers as many complain of memory loss and other neurological ills, incl. Co. comments

See all tags Allegations

‘In scramble for EV metals, health threat to workers often goes unaddressed’ 8 June 2023

Dirk Jooste had never been a big drinker. But when he showed up for his job as an electrician at a manganese mine in the Kalahari Desert one Monday morning, he was trembling so much that his supervisor asked him if he was “babalas,” or hung over. Jooste, then in his early 50s, soon lost the ability to keep his balance, walk straight and remember things as basic as the TV show he’d seen the night before, he recounted more than a decade later. Eventually, a doctor delivered news that shocked Jooste: The powdery black manganese dust he’d worked with each day for years appeared to have caused irreversible poisoning…For years, however, manganese has taken a toll on the health of those who mine and process it, according to scientific research that shows that high-level exposure can be toxic, causing a spectrum of neurological harm. In South Africa, home to the world’s biggest manganese reserves, interviews with dozens of current and former employees in mines and smelters, as well as with doctors and researchers, underscore the peril.

…The shift to EVs already figures prominently in the global battle against climate change, and that transition is stoking demand for a wide range of minerals used in manufacturing them, such as manganese, cobalt, lithium and nickel. To run, EVs typically require six times the mineral input of conventional vehicles, as measured by weight, excluding steel and aluminum. But there remains little recognition of the harm that the extraction and processing of such minerals could have on workers and surrounding communities…Analysts who closely follow the EV industry note that there has been little discussion among automakers and their suppliers about the potential health hazards, adding that the companies are mostly concerned about whether there is enough high-purity manganese — which is specifically required for EV batteries — to meet demand. Tesla, Ford and Chevrolet, which sold the most-popular EVs in the United States last year, did not respond to requests for comment.

…South32 and Assmang, two major manganese mining companies in South Africa, said their risk-mitigation strategies are informed by research on the potential health effects of exposure to manganese dust…A spokesman for South32 declined to comment on individual cases but said in a statement that the company takes “proactive steps to reduce the risk by applying controls in line with international best practice,” including the use of protective equipment for certain work groups, dust-suppression systems, and ventilation in underground mines. The spokesman said that if workers display “any symptoms of occupational illness, we take it very seriously,” and that after screening, they would be sent for medical evaluation…A spokeswoman for Assmang said it conducts a medical surveillance program and warns employees about the potential dangers of manganese exposure. The spokeswoman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing company policy, said there have been no cases of manganese poisoning at Assmang’s mines.