The Dangerous Fringe Theory Behind the Great Barrington Declaration and Herd Immunity
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Officials at the highest levels are discussing the possibility of caving in on controlling the coronavirus and instead letting it run rampant throughout the United States until we reach "herd immunity," the point where the virus effectively runs out of people to infect. More than 6,200 scientists, health professionals, and research organizations say this is inhumane and have signed a memorandum rejecting herd immunity as a legitimate strategy.
Published last week in the The Lancet, the document is named for John Snow, considered the father of modern epidemiology for mapping out the 1854 London cholera epidemic to pinpoint its source and cause, deadly water contaminated by sewage that was managed by a particular water company. The John Snow Memorandum, signed by the Union of Concerned Scientists (and individually by my wife, a physician and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health), warns that many factors render herd immunity a "dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence."
Chief among them are that the coronavirus is much deadlier than the seasonal flu, and it remains unclear how long any immunity lasts after one recovers from an infection. That makes it likely that a herd immunity strategy, according to the memo, will surely cause a huge number of preventable deaths, run the risk of triggering recurrent epidemics, and potentially "overwhelm the ability of healthcare systems to provide acute and routine care."
The upwelling of concern behind the memorandum is the legitimacy being given in key corners of the White House to herd immunity, as represented in a new, high-profile document called The Great Barrington Declaration. It was written by three scientists with fringe views and concocted in a gathering hosted by a libertarian think tank with ties to the climate-denying Koch Industries. The declaration's top authors were invited earlier this month to meet with Scott Atlas, a member of the Coronavirus Task Force and an open advocate of herd immunity, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
The declaration claims, with not a single fact or scientific study to back it up, that "current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health." Paternalistically oblivious to systemic and political reasons why Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people die from COVID-19 at higher rates than White people, the declaration says lockdowns are a "grave injustice" to the working class and school children and that keeping lockdowns in place until there is a vaccine "will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed."
Given all that so-called injustice, the authors say everyone who is "not vulnerable" should be free to move about the country and dance, sing, and play with the virus. They slyly skirt the notion that herd immunity is really about reopening the economy at all costs—which many governors did with catastrophic spikes in coronavirus cases. Instead, they say:
"Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching;"
"Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed;"
"Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume."
Herd Immunity’s Unacceptable Toll
Resumption of normal life in the United States under a herd immunity approach would result in an enormous death toll by all estimates. Former CDC director Tom Frieden estimates that another 500,000 people would have to die to achieve 60 percent herd immunity. "And that's the best-case scenario," Frieden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "The number of deaths to get there could be twice as high."
Frieden said that is the best-case scenario because no one really knows if the actual percentage needed to see the virus peter out is to have it infect more like 65, 70, or even 75 percent of the population. Even if immunity could be miraculously achieved at 50 percent, an estimate published in Nature Reviews Immunology places the range of sacrifice somewhere between 500,000 and 2.1 million deaths.
That makes it little wonder that Anthony Fauci, the most respected scientist advising the Trump administration on the pandemic, called herd immunity for the coronavirus "total nonsense." Fauci is backed up by the likes of National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who said herd immunity is a "dangerous" and "fringe" component of epidemiology. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Health called herd immunity "junk science."
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this month that the only acceptable form of "herd immunity" is achieved through vaccination. "Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it," the secretary general said. "Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic... Allowing a dangerous virus that we don't fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It's not an option."
Nowhere does the Great Barington Declaration acknowledge that 60 percent of adults in the United States have at least one chronic medical condition that makes them more vulnerable for worse outcomes from COVID. That means that only 40 percent of adults would have the privilege of resuming normal breathing among work colleagues and shouting and singing in sports and worship.
Nor does the declaration acknowledge a study in The Lancet that finds that less than 10 percent of people in the United States currently have the antibodies for the coronavirus. As proponents of herd immunity wax poetically about letting the virus loose among children and young adults, a grim reality is that one out of every five COVID deaths has occurred among people under the age of 65.
The herd immunity approach is also inherently racist, given the context of the systemic health, employment, residential, and environmental injustice inequities that make people of color more susceptible to the virus. Even though the virus is raging throughout nearly the entire nation, with cases increasing in 42 states and Guam, according to the October 22 tracking by the New York Times, any public health response to the virus must factor in the impact on people of color.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID hospitalization rate for Latinx, Indigenous Americans, and African Americans, when adjusted for age, were all more than four times higher the hospitalization rate for white Americans, and the age-adjusted death rate for all three groups are triple the rate for white Americans, according to the APM Research Lab. The lab says that if racial death rates were equal, nearly 22,000 Black people and about 11,400 Latinx would still be alive today.
And while proponents of rushing children back into classrooms say we can do so because young kids rarely get sick from coronavirus, nearly four out of every five children who do die are African American, Latinx, or Indigenous, according to the CDC, double their combined share of the U.S. population.
Herd Immunity Is the National De Facto Strategy
Somehow, none of that has culled herd immunity from being considered as a legitimate approach for fighting COVID-19. Rather, the Great Barrington Declaration has much in common with the Trump administration's approach to the coronavirus, which has led to more people dying from COVID-19 in the United States than in any other nation on Earth.
A de facto herd immunity approach is the only thing that can explain the push by governors of so many states to reopen bars, restaurants, beaches, bowling alleys, and gyms in states even as the virus has raged and case numbers have been increasing. It is the only thing that can explain the federal designation of meatpackers as essential workers and state demands that teachers go back into classrooms despite outbreaks and deaths related to those professions.
It also explains how so many of the nation's most respected scientific voices have been silenced. Despite the virus's current "uncontrolled spread" in 34 states and Puerto Rico, according to October 21 tracking by CovidExistStrategy.org, the White House has pushed aside Fauci, Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
In their place, the administration has handed the pandemic podium to Scott Atlas, a radiologist and conservative pundit with no background in infectious disease science or epidemiology in measuring disease prevalence. Inhumanely ignoring the more than half of U.S. adults having a pre-existing condition that could compromise them for COVID-19, he blithely praises herd immunity, saying, "We can allow a lot of people to get infected. Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected."
He pooh-poohs expanded testing, saying, "you are destroying the workforce." Twitter recently took down one of Atlas's tweets for falsely claiming, "Masks work? NO" and then lying that the WHO says widespread mask use is "not supported." The first sentence of the WHO's webpage on masks says, "Masks are a key measure to suppress the spread of COVID-19 and save lives."
Atlas denies that the White House has a "wide-open strategy of achieving herd immunity." But there's little doubt that the White House is wide open to the idea. Last week, Atlas appeared on Fox News to say the thrust of the Great Barrington Declaration "is exactly aligned with the president." That was seconded by a senior administration official who told reporters in a conference call that the Great Barrington Declaration "is endorsing what the president's policy has been for months."
The freezing out of scientists on the Coronavirus Task Force reached deep space levels this week (a metaphoric minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit), with multiple buckets of ice dumped on Fauci. Atlas diminished Fauci as "just one person" on the force, offering only a "limited approach." President Trump called Fauci a "disaster," claiming, "People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong."
Many Thousands of Lives Can Still Be Saved
Atlas's malpractice already merits his dismissal. He should be forced to step down because his disregard for science will surely lead to incalculable disaster if a herd immunity approach becomes official government policy. Calls for his ouster have already begun even from inside the task force. According to the Washington Post, Birx went to Vice President Mike Pence to suggest removing Atlas. All Pence reportedly did was ask Birx and Atlas to work out their problems on their own.
There is no time left for such discord within the task force and for discordant messages to come from the White House on how people should protect themselves from COVID-19. The thousands of scientists and public health professionals who signed the John Snow Memorandum say "it is critical to act decisively and urgently," to launch a "robust" response on the level of New Zealand, Vietnam, or Japan—all of which have shown success in containing the virus and keeping the numbers of cases and deaths relatively low.
The approach that has been proven effective starts with face coverings and social distancing and reducing the temptation we all will feel during the oncoming winter holidays to have extended family gatherings. Researchers from MIT and the Vancouver School of Economics estimate in a working paper that, if the United States had established a national mask mandate in mid-March, between 19,000 and 47,000 lives could have been saved by the end of May. Now that the nation's death toll approaches a quarter million lives lost, and is projected to reach nearly 400,000 by February 1, according to the Institutes for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the institute estimates we could avoid 74,000 new deaths with universal mask use.
Importantly, masks protect others, including the most vulnerable among us. This week, the Washington Post reported how coronavirus outbreaks among college students partying in unmasked packs in LaCrosse, Wisconsin was found to have led to 19 deaths so far of people over the age of 60. Before that, the city had gone without a single pandemic death in its nursing homes.
That is on the heels of the wedding in Millinocket, Maine that resulted in an outbreak that killed eight elderly people, none of whom attended the event, and the 500,000-person Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally that is now tied to the massive coronavirus outbreak in the Upper Midwest and Mountain States. The Germain IZA Institute of Labor Economics estimates that the illness generated from the rally will cost the nation $12.2 billion in health care costs.
Atlas and the proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration have not yet said why this is just fine. That is why they must be unmasked for the charlatans that they are.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.