Demand for EV mineral skyrockets, leaving miners largely overlooked

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Correspondent Rachel Chason and photographer Ilan Godfrey logged greater than 1,200 miles driving throughout South Africa, from distant mining cities within the Kalahari Desert to industrial websites within the northeast, to research situations within the manganese trade. Chason is The Washington Publish’s West Africa bureau chief, based mostly in Dakar, Senegal, with tasks stretching from the Sahel to southern Africa. Godfrey, based mostly in Johannesburg, focuses on environmental forces shaping his house nation.

HOTAZEL, South Africa — Dirk Jooste had by no means been a giant drinker. However when he confirmed up for his job as an electrician at a manganese mine within the Kalahari Desert one Monday morning, he was trembling a lot that his supervisor requested him if he was “babalas,” or hung over.

Jooste, then in his early 50s, quickly misplaced the power to maintain his steadiness, stroll straight and bear in mind issues as fundamental because the TV present he’d seen the evening earlier than, he recounted greater than a decade later. Finally, a health care provider delivered information that shocked Jooste: The powdery black manganese mud he’d labored with every day for years appeared to have brought about irreversible poisoning.

As demand for electrical automobiles has soared in recent times, automakers have quickly turned to manganese, a standard and comparatively cheap mineral that’s already utilized in about half of rechargeable batteries and is seen as key to creating provide chains extra dependable and automobiles extra inexpensive. The trade’s demand for manganese has quintupled over the previous 5 years, and analysts predict it may enhance an extra ninefold by 2030.

For years, nevertheless, manganese has taken a toll on the well being of those that mine and course of it, based on scientific analysis that reveals that high-level publicity could be poisonous, inflicting a spectrum of neurological hurt. In South Africa, house to the world’s largest manganese reserves, interviews with dozens of present and former staff in mines and smelters, in addition to with medical doctors and researchers, underscore the peril.


Amid the brand new world fervor for manganese, nevertheless, the trade has proven little consideration of those occupational dangers, based on analysts who give attention to the power transition.

The shift to EVs already figures prominently within the world battle towards local weather change, and that transition is stoking demand for a variety of minerals utilized in manufacturing them, corresponding to manganese, cobalt, lithium and nickel. To run, EVs usually require six instances the mineral enter of typical automobiles, as measured by weight, excluding metal and aluminum. However there stays little recognition of the hurt that the extraction and processing of such minerals may have on staff and surrounding communities.

Present and retired manganese miners within the distant Kalahari Desert mentioned their reminiscences have declined after years of working within the mines, whereas former smelter staff discovered themselves unable to stroll a straight line. One latest research discovered that 26 p.c of manganese miners studied in Hotazel, the Northern Cape mining city the place Jooste labored, exhibited signs much like these of Parkinson’s illness. Many present and former miners mentioned they had been by no means warned concerning the potential risks of publicity. Former miners and smelter staff who raised considerations mentioned they had been ignored.

Clear automobiles, hidden toll

A collection unearthing the unintended penalties of securing the metals wanted to construct and energy electrical automobiles

Analysts who carefully comply with the EV trade word that there was little dialogue amongst automakers and their suppliers concerning the potential well being hazards, including that the businesses are largely involved about whether or not there’s sufficient high-purity manganese — which is particularly required for EV batteries — to satisfy demand. Tesla, Ford and Chevrolet, which offered the most-popular EVs in the USA final 12 months, didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Aloys d’Harambure, government director of the Worldwide Manganese Institute, which represents the manganese trade, agreed that extra publicity to the mineral can result in irreversible neurological harm that’s related to the illness often called manganism. However, he added, “because of present applied sciences and labor laws, in addition to measures on security issues, manganism isn’t seen right now.” He mentioned using manganese in EV batteries continues to be such a small a part of the general market — the overwhelming majority of manganese goes towards metal — that “now we have not but seen any elevated dialogue or further analysis on the subject of potential well being impacts of high-purity manganese.”

The problem is very pressing in South Africa, which has seen its manufacturing of manganese enhance by greater than one-third since 2017 and, because the world’s largest producer, now accounts for about 36 p.c of the worldwide whole, adopted by Gabon and Australia.

South32 and Assmang, two main manganese mining firms in South Africa, mentioned their risk-mitigation methods are knowledgeable by analysis on the potential well being results of publicity to manganese mud.

Medical doctors and medical researchers agree that defending human well being will take better recognition of the menace and extra vigilance than up to now, together with rigorous monitoring, protecting gear and proactive medical surveillance packages.

Jooste, for one, has little confidence. Sitting in his physician’s workplace, Jooste, now 65, mentioned he fears that South Africa is repeating its ugly historical past with asbestos mining, which continued for years after the well being dangers to staff and close by communities had been recognized.

“How lengthy is it going to take till folks begin realizing what is going on?” Jooste mentioned of manganese, his voice rising in irritation. “One other 30 or 40 years? Should we wait till folks begin dying?”

An extended historical past and a ‘new frontier’

Way back to 1837, a Scottish doctor, John Couper, detailed the struggling of staff uncovered to manganese at a bleach manufacturing unit exterior Glasgow. He reported males staggering after dropping power of their legs and struggling to talk clearly, their face muscle tissues paralyzed.

As extra research had been performed on the situation that turned often called manganism, researchers recorded different signs, together with tremors and emotional instability, typically termed “manganese insanity.” They decided that manganese poisoning happens when the substance is inhaled or ingested, will get into the bloodstream and is deposited within the basal ganglia, the a part of the mind that controls motion and steadiness.

Due to enhancements in office situations in latest a long time, full-blown manganism is now uncommon, researchers say. What’s extra widespread, they are saying, are refined signs together with slowness of motion, stiffness in joints, irritability and forgetfulness, all of which could be tough to diagnose. Tomás R. Guilarte, a professor of environmental well being sciences at Florida Worldwide College, mentioned that though the hyperlinks between excessive manganese publicity and toxicity are clear, the genetics that make some folks extra weak nonetheless must be studied.

In Hotazel, a city surrounded by big mines crammed with darkish grey manganese ore, neurologist Brad Racette examined 187 manganese miners, whose common age was 42. Racette, chair of neurology on the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona, discovered {that a} quarter of those miners skilled Parkinsonian signs, corresponding to abnormally stiff and gradual motion. His staff, which carried out the research between 2010 and 2014, additionally discovered that these signs had been related to a decrease high quality of life, as reported by the employees in surveys.

“We’re nonetheless peeling the layers off this onion,” Racette mentioned. “My query at this level is how low the [exposure] ranges have to go earlier than they’re secure.”

Research of staff at an Italian plant producing manganese alloys for steelmaking within the late Nineteen Nineties additionally discovered that they exhibited uncommon slowness of motion and lack of steadiness, mentioned Roberto Lucchini, a professor of occupational and environmental well being at Florida Worldwide College. Lucchini, who continues to be finding out these staff, mentioned that over time they’ve developed comparatively excessive ranges of a sort of plaque buildup within the mind that’s typically an indicator for Alzheimer’s illness.

He and different researchers mentioned authorized publicity ranges stay far too excessive in a lot of the world, together with South Africa. Research in Italy, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Ohio have highlighted the potential hazard even of exposures beneath the authorized limits.

As a result of EV batteries require high-purity manganese, Lucchini mentioned, there’s more likely to be a good better menace in refineries than in mines, the place the mud is coarser and thus much less more likely to attain the mind immediately.

“This,” Lucchini mentioned, “is a brand new frontier.”

Problem dealing with a cup of espresso

After 10-hour workdays on the large open-pit mine, Jooste mentioned, he would return to his home and discover his nostril, enamel and even tongue lined in wonderful black mud. “It was all black,” mentioned Jooste, who labored as a contractor blowing the mud out of damaged truck air conditioners on the Mamatwan mine. “Every little thing.”

After that long-ago day when his supervisor requested if he had a hangover, Jooste headed to the clinic on the mine, which was then owned by the Australian mining big BHP Billiton and later spun off with different operations underneath the company title South32. He mentioned the physician identified him with Parkinson’s illness.

However Jooste, a tall man with a shock of grey hair, observed that a few of his signs weren’t equivalent to these related to Parkinson’s. When one other physician prescribed remedy for Parkinson’s, it didn’t work.

Finally, Jooste landed within the workplace of Tidu van der Merwe, an occupational well being physician within the close by mining city of Kathu. Earlier in his profession, van der Merwe had presciently warned about hazardous situations at a manganese smelting plant, the place a spate of suspected manganism circumstances had been later reported. He knew that Jooste’s job on the mine had entailed excessive publicity — he’d worn solely a skinny masks — and acknowledged that his signs mirrored many within the medical literature. He identified Jooste with manganism.

Greater than a decade later, Jooste’s hand-eye coordination has develop into so dangerous that he has hassle handing his spouse a cup of espresso with out spilling it. “That is no life,” mentioned Jooste, whose case was first reported final 12 months by Carte Blanche, an investigative outlet in South Africa.

A spokesman for South32 declined to touch upon particular person circumstances however mentioned in an announcement that the corporate takes “proactive steps to cut back the chance by making use of controls according to worldwide greatest apply,” together with using protecting gear for sure work teams, dust-suppression methods, and air flow in underground mines. The spokesman mentioned that if staff show “any signs of occupational sickness, we take it very severely,” and that after screening, they’d be despatched for medical analysis.

Whereas science is evident concerning the potential peril posed by manganese, the extent of the hurt being performed to staff in South Africa stays much less sure, partly as a result of there’s so little monitoring and so little analysis. Jaco Cilliers, a neurologist in Bloemfontein, mentioned that screening for manganese poisoning is uncommon and that when he meets along with his medical colleagues, it’s “not one thing that will get talked about.”

Ewert Bohnen, a health care provider whose agency is on contract with the businesses to run well being clinics at 5 manganese mines within the Northern Cape, mentioned he’s had no suspected manganese poisoning circumstances over 15 years. The vast majority of circumstances he’s heard about, he mentioned, come from smelters, which primarily course of manganese for steelmaking.

In cities close to the mines, many different medical doctors declined to speak to reporters about manganese. A physician at Assmang Black Rock mine hung up when a reporter mentioned why she was calling. 4 occupational well being medical doctors in Kuruman, who, based on their receptionist, handled “tons” of manganese miners, declined to remark. A physician in Hotazel mentioned in a quick telephone interview that he’d had one manganism affected person, who died, however the physician declined to satisfy, saying questions ought to be directed to the mines.

Jonathan Myers, previously a professor of occupational well being on the College of Cape City, mentioned he carried out a research within the Northern Cape 20 years in the past that discovered no antagonistic neurological results of manganese publicity in additional than 400 energetic miners.

Van der Merwe mentioned he worries that circumstances could also be going unnoticed due to variations in language and tradition, particularly between administration and medical employees on one hand and Black miners, who’ve traditionally been the spine of South Africa’s mining trade, on the opposite.

“I’m sticking my neck out speaking about this,” he mentioned, including that concern of the mining firms is widespread.

‘We overlook stuff’

In two villages close to the mines, dozens of former miners, all Black and a few carrying their previous mining uniforms, recounted their well being illnesses to visiting reporters at casual neighborhood middle conferences. A few of the former miners cited the identical refined signs that researchers have recognized, and plenty of mentioned they’d sought medical assist however run into lifeless ends. They informed of medical doctors who mentioned the illnesses could possibly be associated to manganese however who declined to offer official diagnoses.

“There isn’t any readability,” mentioned Looseboy Picoentsi, 62, in Ga-Mopedi village, who added that his physician informed him his sharp decline in reminiscence could possibly be associated to manganese. However when Picoentsi tried to get his well being information from the mine the place he’d labored, he was informed they didn’t have them anymore.

Lekgetho Mosimaneotsile, 64, additionally of Ga-Mopedi, had labored at Assmang’s manganese mine for 27 years, lots of them spent blowing manganese mud out of storerooms. He mentioned he began experiencing chest pains and forgetting issues whereas he was nonetheless working within the mine. Now, he mentioned, his reminiscence is so dangerous that when he leaves his home to get one thing, he’ll overlook what it was. Generally when he wakes up within the morning, he can’t cease his physique from trembling.

A spokeswoman for Assmang mentioned it conducts a medical surveillance program and warns staff concerning the potential risks of manganese publicity. The spokeswoman, who spoke on the situation of anonymity, citing firm coverage, mentioned there have been no circumstances of manganese poisoning at Assmang’s mines.

In one of many Hotazel neighborhoods the place present miners dwell in housing backed by the businesses, a number of complained of reminiscence loss and different illnesses. Elias Gasejewe, 53, who has labored in an underground manganese mine since 2005, mentioned he’s been forgetting issues for years and seems like his thoughts works extra slowly than it as soon as did. Though the mining firm encourages staff to put on masks, he mentioned, he nonetheless sees the black mud combined in his mucus.

Ernest Hendrik, 53, has labored in the identical underground mine, and likewise mentioned he suffers from reminiscence loss, in addition to joint stiffness and issue with coordination. He mentioned he is aware of many miners who’ve fallen unwell, however typically after they retire.

When Boipelo Sekwe, a present miner, was approached by reporters and requested whether or not she had any well being considerations, she was in the midst of celebrating her forty eighth birthday. She paused from dancing to Afrobeats music and consuming beer and responded: “We overlook stuff. 100% of us overlook stuff.”

A combat for compensation

Ezekiel Makhanja’s questions began within the early 2000s when he observed his co-workers at a manganese smelting plant in Meyerton, exterior Johannesburg, falling sick. Makhanja, who labored within the smelter’s lab, visited the medical clinic and requested the nurses: “What’s occurring right here?”

That query could be on the coronary heart of a years-long effort by staff at two smelters to get the mining giants that owned them to acknowledge the peril posed by manganese.

On the Samancor plant the place Makhanja labored, then owned by BHP Billiton and now by South32, 5 staff who medical doctors mentioned had developed manganism finally obtained settlements from BHP Billiton. These staff had been all White, held supervisory positions and exhibited “extreme and excessive” signs, mentioned Richard Spoor, a lawyer who represented them. The businesses didn’t reply to requests for remark concerning the settlements.

Makhanja and tons of of his co-workers, largely Black staff who had been laid off within the early 2000s, obtained nothing. Spoor mentioned his makes an attempt to get settlements for a lot of of these staff had been stymied as a result of medical doctors supplied them official diagnoses solely in the obvious circumstances.

Makhanja, now 59, is generally confined to his mattress nowadays. Struggling to talk, he mentioned it’s been a very long time since he may stroll with out falling down. He sweats profusely at evening. He shakes and forgets issues. He mentioned it was after his associates and associates — a few of them of their 30s and 40s — began dying that he realized the reply to the query he’d requested on the clinic: “That is poison.”

At a smelter exterior Durban owned by the Assmang mining firm, Spoor helped 10 staff identified with manganese poisoning get funds from the federal government company liable for compensating folks injured on the job.

An inquiry by South Africa’s Labor Division into the Durban plant concluded that Assmang had created a hazardous working atmosphere and had did not warn staff about potential risks, based on a 2010 report by the division’s inspector. The company beneficial, partly, that publicity limits be lowered to beneath the authorized threshold, which the inspector discovered was “not secure sufficient.”

The Assmang spokeswoman mentioned the corporate was not conscious of the inquiry’s conclusions and disputed the manganism diagnoses, whereas acknowledging that the employees had been completely disabled.

Danger is inevitable

The Manganese Steel Co.’s refinery in Mbombela sits simply throughout from the famed Crocodile River main into Kruger Nationwide Park, the plant’s black equipment contrasting with the encompassing inexperienced hills. The corporate, which additionally produces materials for welding rods and ship propellers, amongst different merchandise, is one in every of only some exterior China making the high-purity manganese wanted for EV batteries. Right here, ore from the Kalahari isn’t smelted however fairly dissolved in large purple vats of sulfate resolution, then electrified to provide a high-purity steel that may later be transformed after it leaves the plant into the sulfate type required by battery cathode precursor makers.

Throughout a tour organized for reporters, indicators reminding staff to put on masks and protecting ear coverings abounded. Workers had on lengthy sleeves and lengthy pants. Hannes Raath, the physician who has run MMC’s occupational well being clinic for the previous 22 years, mentioned staff put on screens to make sure that the quantity of mud is inside secure limits. In a few of the locations with the very best concentrations of manganese mud, there have been few staff to be discovered.

Raath mentioned he has seen 5 to seven manganism circumstances throughout his time on the refinery, however none in recent times. He mentioned that’s as a result of the corporate has put a precedence on medical surveillance, together with neurological screenings and follow-up MRIs if wanted.

Chief government Louis Nel mentioned the corporate has taken steps to cut back threat as a lot as potential, together with implementing security procedures and offering staff with protecting gear. However he acknowledged that some threat is inevitable. Certainly, close to the furnaces the place manganese is dried, black mud particles coated a reporter’s telephone display screen. However Nel mentioned the corporate has tried to “engineer out as a lot of the chance as we will.”

It stays unclear how severely the broader trade is taking the hazard. Analysts at 4 analysis and consulting companies that comply with the EV and minerals sectors mentioned that threat to manganese staff isn’t a subject of dialogue amongst automakers, suppliers and buyers.

“The main target is on meet demand in a manner that’s cost-beneficial,” mentioned Victoria Hugill, a battery analysis analyst with Rho Movement. “The extra worker-focused questions and considerations are decrease on the meals chain.”

Sam Jaffe, vp of battery storage at E Supply, one other consulting and analysis agency, mentioned the neurological dangers posed by manganese had been “under no circumstances” on his radar. He famous that it’s notably tough to evaluate the hazards of manufacturing high-purity manganese as a result of so most of the refineries are in China. Likewise, d’Harambure, of the Worldwide Manganese Institute, famous that greater than 95 p.c of refined manganese is produced in China, the place “the entry to info on employee publicity, protecting measures taken by producers, and potential environmental and neighborhood impacts is extraordinarily restricted.”

Wei Zheng, a well being science professor at Purdue College in Indiana, has been finding out manganese manufacturing in China for many years. He recalled watching staff at a refinery in Guizhou province who had been producing high-purity manganese for a wide range of makes use of, together with rechargeable batteries, take away their protecting gear as they walked into the plant, selecting consolation over security.

Zheng, who visited the refinery in Guizhou a number of instances, mentioned the trade must reckon not simply with the well being considerations of staff but in addition with the broader environmental impacts of increasing manganese mines and processing services.

“It’s about households, neighbors and communities,” Zheng mentioned. “It’s not simply concerning the staff. It’s about everybody surrounding the employees.”

About this story

Reporting by Rachel Chason. Cate Brown in Washington; Hlengiwe Motaung in Meyerton, South Africa; Reginald Witbooi within the Northern Cape; and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report. Pictures by Ilan Godfrey.

Design by Lucy Naland. Improvement by Irfan Uraizee. Graphic by Hannah Dormido. Knowledge evaluation by Steven Wealthy. Analysis by Cate Brown.

Alan Sipress was the lead editor. Enhancing by Courtney Kan, Vanessa H. Larson, Olivier Laurent, Joe Moore and Martha Murdock.

Extra help from Steven Bohner, Matt Clough, David Dombrowski, Stephanie Hays, Gwen Milder, Sarah Murray, Andrea Platten and Erica Snow.

Clear automobiles, hidden toll

As the worldwide demand for electrical automobiles begins to outpace the demand for gas-powered automobiles, Washington Publish reporters got down to examine the unintended penalties of a worldwide EV growth. This collection explores the impression of securing the minerals wanted to construct and energy electrical automobiles on native communities, staff and the atmosphere.

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