The Human Rights and Environmental Tragedies Fueling Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular among consumers looking to support a “green” lifestyle. Unfortunately, the only thing clean about the batteries fueling these cars is their reputation.

The same kind of battery—the rechargeable lithium-ion battery—that powers your cell phone is used to power electric cars, though on a much larger scale. As the Washington Post noted in its exposé about the dangers of unregulated cobalt mining, “While a smartphone battery might contain five to 10 grams of refined cobalt, a single electric-car battery can contain up to 15,000 grams.”

And this ramping up of demand for the components of lithium batteries will exacerbate the existing human rights abuses and environmental degradation that are already enmeshed in the battery supply chain.

For instance, in the Congo tens of thousands of men and boys crawl through tunnels into unsafe “mines” and use hand tools to dig for cobalt, a mineral that is essential to the rechargeable lithium batteries.

In an effort to earn just a few dollars a day, these miners use pick axes and shovels to dig hundreds of feet into the earth to extract tons of cobalt by hand. Safety gear and regulatory oversight are virtually nonexistent, so injuries and death are commonplace.

Beyond the environmental degradation and water pollution it causes, artisanal cobalt mining has led to countless injuries and death among the estimated 100,000 miners who dig for it. There is also an alarming increase in rare birth defects that researcher think is connected to rise in cobalt mining.

Similarly, in China the extraction and refining of graphite—another key ingredient in lithium batteries—is causing pollution and health problems. 

As the Washington Post reported:

Graphite powder can quickly become airborne dust, drifting for miles. Without systems of tarps and fans to keep it under control, the resulting fine-particle pollution can cause an array of breathing difficulties, such as aggravating lung disease or reducing lung function, and has been linked to heart attacks in people with heart disease, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Graphite operations can also lead to pollution because their chemicals leak into local waters. According to industry sources, the purifying process, especially in China, is commonly done with acids, often hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic substance.

The health hazards, environmental degradation, and countless injuries and deaths caused by the race to supply cobalt and graphite are tragic unintended consequences of the growing demand for lithium batteries, driven in part by the extremist Keep it in the Ground movement that seeks to put an end to all oil and gas production. 

And these disastrous results raise questions about the advisability of heedlessly chasing the latest “green” technology.