The tragedy we carry in our phones

Smartphone batteries contain cobalt as a key ingredient.  (Pablo Romeo/Flickr Creative Commons)

It is sometimes difficult to take our minds off of our hectic, self-driven lives to spend a few moments contemplating the true cost of our luxuries. In a college setting, life is full of technology: smartphones, laptops, that dream electric car you might aspire to buy after graduation. Yet, all of these products affect workers around the world, and the prices of these luxuries extend far past the sticker price at the store. An example of this is the real cost of the lithium-ion batteries that power those smartphones, laptops and electric cars. Cobalt is a key component of the batteries, but the backstory of the material in your technology often times is tragic.

Sixty percent of the world’s cobalt originates in Congo, which has known risks for child labor and dangerous work conditions. In addition to this, artisanal miners, impoverished workers who do not have the resources to utilize pneumatic drills or diesel draglines, are responsible for 17 to 40 percent of Congo’s cobalt production. With the constant risk of underground fires and mine collapses, these workers only make an average of the equivalent to $2 to $3 on a good day, and the workers receive no help if they are injured on the job.

These mines are also hazardous for the surrounding communities. Soil samples from Lubumbashi, a center of Congo’s mining, display the region as one of the top 10 polluted areas in the world. Doctors are concerned about the health implications of this pollution. Lubumbashi doctors found that residents living near smelters or mines in southern Congo had urinary concentrations of cobalt 43 times higher than a control group and that of lead was five times higher. They have concerns for thyroid conditions and breathing problems, but the biggest concern is a possible connection to birth defects. A 2012 study by university doctors found preliminary evidence of increased visual birth defects if the father worked in Congo’s mining industry.

Lubumbashi doctors also issue reports of birth defects, like Mermaid syndrome, that are so rare there are only cases of them from Congo, in heavy mining regions. Holoprosencephaly is an almost unheard of, typically fatal condition, but last year, doctors in Lubumbashi found three cases in three months.

This cobalt that causes so much harm in Congo often ends up in our popular technology. The cobalt moves from many small scale Congolese mines to a single company in China, Congo DongFang International Mining, part of one of the largest Cobalt producers in the world, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt. Huayou Cobalt supplies some of the most prominent battery makers, including parts found in Apple products.

Chen Hongliang, the president of Huayou Cobalt, stated they did not realize how its minerals were obtained even after operating in Congo for ten years. He then explained that he realized it was a shortcoming and he plans to change how the company buys cobalt. Hauyou Cobalt has hired an outside company to oversee the change, and it claims to be working with customers, such as Apple, to create a system to prevent abuse.

Cleaning up this supply chain is not going to be easy, but a large part of that is whether or not customers are going to be supportive. It is imperative that companies try to improve the situation in Congo rather than leaving the region to ensure their brand is not incorporated into the shame of perpetuating this tragedy in the mines. LG Chem, a leading battery maker, stated that it ceased the purchase of Congo-sourced minerals last year, but if all companies decided to stop purchasing from Congolese mines, the region would be in an even worse position.

It might seem tempting to push this problem away due to distance or complexity, yet people carry around a piece of it each day in the technology they so often place at the center of their lives. As customers of those products, we need to implore companies to support this region through health research, more safety precautions and equipment in industrial and artisanal mines, and oversight of the purchasing operations, ensuring that miners get fair pay and treated well.

Alyssa Luis is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at