Hesperian Health Guides

Health Problems from Mining

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 21: Mining and Health > Health Problems from Mining

Mining causes serious accidents such as fires, explosions, or collapsed mine tunnels that affect miners and people living in communities near mines. Even in places where mining happened long ago, people can still be exposed to health threats from mining waste and chemicals that remain in the soil and water. Mining damages health in many ways:

  • Dust, chemical spills, harmful fumes, heavy metals and radiation can poison workers and cause life-long health problems as well as allergic reactions and other immediate problems.
  • Heavy lifting and working with the body in awkward positions can lead to injuries to the arms, legs, and back.
A man using a jackhammer.
  • Use of jackhammers or other vibrating machinery can cause damage to nerves and blood circulation, and lead to loss of feeling, very dangerous infections such as gangrene, and even death.
  • Loud, constant noise from machines can cause hearing problems, including deafness.
  • Long hours working underground with little light can harm vision.
  • Working in very hot conditions without drinking enough water can cause heat stress. Signs of heat stress include: dizziness, weakness, rapid heartbeat, extreme thirst, and fainting.
Workers dig in a pit.
  • Hiring and labor practices of mining companies create divisions among families, neighbors, and communities. These disagreements can lead to tears in the social fabric, an increase in personal stress, and mental health problems throughout the community.
  • Water pollution and overuse of water resources leads to many health problems (see Chapter 5 and Chapter 6).
  • Land and soil are destroyed, leading to food scarcity and hunger.
  • Air pollution from power plants and smelting factories built near mines causes serious illness (see Chapter 16).
Mining and sickness among the Dineh

The Dineh tribe and other Native people from the deserts of the western United States tell of 2 kinds of yellow powder the Creator put in the ground. One kind is the yellow pollen of maize. For the Dineh, maize is a sacred food, and its pollen is used in religious rituals. The other yellow powder is known as “yellow cake,” or uranium. The Dineh believe that uranium was supposed to stay under the ground and never be dug up or used.

In the 1940s, when the US government discovered how uranium could be used to make nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, mining companies began to dig for uranium on Dineh land. Young Dineh men, who had formerly earned their living raising sheep, eagerly took jobs in the new mines. Uranium mining quickly became one of the most important ways Dineh people earned money. But over the years, uranium mining made many Dineh people very ill.

The government and the mining companies knew the dangers of uranium mining, but the miners and their families had to find out about the dangers on their own. Dineh miners died young from the harmful effects of radiation. Many women had miscarriages or had children with birth defects and other health problems. Men who worked in the mines developed lung cancer and breathing problems. Some lost the ability to walk. Even cattle and sheep near the mines grew sick and died before they could give milk or wool.

These problems continued for over 50 years. In 2005, the Dineh finally banned uranium mining on their land. But Dineh land still has hundreds of abandoned uranium mines and piles of toxic waste. The US government is paying some families of people who died from uranium poisoning, but not very much. And there is great pressure from the nuclear industry for the Dineh to open more mines.

Dineh land also has some of the largest deposits of coal in the United States. With the loss of jobs from closing the uranium mines, coal mining has become one of the only sources of well-paying jobs for Dineh men. But coal mining is also dangerous to health as well as the environment, both when it is dug out of the ground and when it is burned to make electricity in power plants.

Like many people, the Dineh are being asked to choose between poor health and poverty. Many things must change for the Dineh to have better choices, especially an end to the racism that denies Native people the right to control their own communities, resources, and futures. And the whole world, but especially the United States, must use less harmful ways of producing energy than coal and uranium.