Bauxite Contamination - The Long-Term Effects on Health
The Long-Term Effects on Health
BAUXITE MINING. ALUMINIUM IS THE THIRD MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENT IN THE EARTH'S CRUST, BUT DOES NOT OCCUR AS A METAL NATURALLY. THE FIRST STEP IN PRODUCING ALUMINIUM IS MINING ITS ORE – BAUXITE.
WHAT IS BAUXITE?
Bauxite is a naturally occurring, heterogeneous material composed primarily of one or more aluminium hydroxide minerals, plus various mixtures of silica, iron oxide, titania, aluminosilicate, and other impurities in minor or trace amounts. Bauxites are typically classified according to their intended commercial application: abrasive, cement, chemical, metallurgical, refractory, etc. The bulk of world bauxite production (approximately 85%) is used as feed for the manufacture of alumina via a wet chemical caustic leach method commonly known as the Bayer process, as quoted from USGS official websitei. The aluminium-containing bauxite ores gibbsite, böhmite and diaspore are the basic raw materials for primary aluminium production.
WHAT IS BAUXITE RESIDUE OR “RED MUD”?
The process of alumina refining extracts alumina from bauxite ore, leaving bauxite residue, which comprises red mud and sand. Bauxite residue is ergo a by-product of alumina refining and is stored in special facilities. Bauxite residue is a reddish brown, non-combustible solid. Bauxite residue customarily consists mostly of iron (which is why it looks red), alumina containing minerals, and silica. It also contains minute proportions of other minerals. The pH level is up to 13, due to alkali sodium compounds, such as sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide. The main concern regarding this is the alkali nature of bauxite residue which contributes to health effects. Bauxite residue composition varies by region, but typically contains the
following components, in roughly the proportions listed:
Mining is viewed as one of the consequential economic activities which have the potential of contributing to the development of economies. Concurrently, the environmental and health impacts of mining on circumventing communities have been a major concern especially to the general public.
Recently, bauxite mining has become a controversial issue in Malaysia. While most other countries are proscribing bauxite mining, Malaysia commenced to increase the engagement in 2014 by putting Kuantan as its main mining hub. Some of these companies have license; but many did notii.
These immensely colossal companies approached smallholders whose properties contained bauxite, and offer them substantial sums of money to sanction their land to be mined. First started as a small mining process turned into major development overnight. Kuantan country roads winding through the hills were suddenly congested with enormous lorries carrying the ore to the port in Kuantan. Rivers started turning red filled with bauxite sediments causing polluted waters where it affects the healthcare of the nearby residents.
An interview done by BBCiii revealed how badly the water pollution in Kuantan is. They also witnessed the Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) taking samples from the Sagu River, at the point where the water is pumped out for Kuantan’s domestic supply.
They collected bottles of water and trays of alluvial mud, and analysed them to detect the presence of heavy metals, arsenic and mercury, which typically exist in bauxite sediment.
Government officials are already doing similar tests, but the failure to regulate the bauxite industry has damaged public trust in its efforts; the MNS volunteers said they wanted to do the tests themselves to ascertain how badly polluted the water supply is.
Marine scientists have also warned of possible catastrophic damage to the ecosystem off the coast of Pahang.
HEALTHCARE EFFECT TO BAUXITE
Long-term exposures to bauxite do arise in healthcare problems and must be taken into consideration very firmly by the government. This implicatively endangers the workers as well, as they are exposed to bauxite mining every day. According to OSHA, the sodium hydroxide (NaOH) is the primary waste in red sludge and it is deleterious to human beings after protracted contact of approximately 15 years. Direct contact may cause a number of problems to humans due to the alkaline nature of the residue. The severity will depend on the alkalinity of the exposure and the duration of contact.
These include skin problems which cause irritation or burns of the skin, and eye exposure may produce defect to the cornea. Ingestion of this material can cause corrosive effects of the mouth, throat, oesophagus and stomach. Early symptoms includes arduousness or painful swallowing, vomiting, regurgitation, and chest or abdominal pain.
Apart from that, the inhalation of the corrosive material, if it gets to the lungs, can additionally lead to vexation of the lower airways causing shortness of breath, chest tightness and cough, especially in people with underlying lung diseases like Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
However, all of this being said, a study was published in Sept 2001 by Institute of Occupational Health, University of Birminghamiv, fixating on Respiratory symptoms and lung function in bauxite miners. Current employees at three bauxite mines in Australia were invited to participate in a survey comprising questionnaire on demographic details, respiratory symptoms, and work history; skin prick tests for four common aeroallergens; and spirometry. Data were examined for associations between cumulative bauxite exposure, and respiratory symptoms and lung function, by regression analyses.
The result indicates that there is no significant differences in the prevalence of respiratory symptoms identified between subjects, in the quartiles of cumulative bauxite exposure distribution.
Although the study showed no significant effect to the lungs, we still need to consider and cross examine the data with recent studies associated with exposure to bauxite from an open-cut bauxite mine in present day conditions. Standard precautions and measures need to be a priority and taken into earnest consideration.
Another study among bauxite miners and alumina refinery workers focusing on relationships between alumina and bauxite dust exposure and cancer, respiratory and circulatory disease was done by The Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicinev, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia and was published in Sept 2009. This group of 5,770 males had previously been linked to national mortality, and national and state cancer incidence registries (1983-2002). These preliminary findings, based on very few cases, suggested that cumulative inhalable bauxite exposure may be associated with an excess risk of death from non-malignant respiratory disease and that cumulative inhalable alumina dust exposure may be associated with an excess risk of death from cerebrovascular disease. Neither exposure appears to increase the risk of incident cancers.
The medical statisticsvi proved that prolonged toxicity may cause encephalopathy, osteoporosis, anemia, and possibly Parkinson diseases. A researcher in Australia where bauxite mining is largely developed proved that red sludge causes lung cancer and uterus deformation in rat experiments. The common symptoms of toxicity on humans are dizziness, vertigo, nausea, fainting, or comatose if breathing or taking in a large dosage.
In cases of ingestion, the material should be diluted by giving water or normal saline, and medical assessment should follow these first aid measures without delay. This applies for excessive inhalation with symptoms as well. Exposure to skin and eyes should be followed with an irrigation procedure where the first step is to remove contaminated clothing and flush exposed areas with water for at least 20 minutes. Irrigation should be followed as anon as possible after skin contamination as every second counts.
At the moment, the public is aware of bauxite mining in Kuantan. But, how much information about the process and its effects on health is still unclear as the number of studies related to long-term effects are small in number. This is a major challenge in identifying clear exposure effects with relationship to health especially concerning to respiratory diseases.
Regardless of how, the government and associated departments should look into this quandary in detail and emerge with a solution immediately as delaying it may cause more harm to the nearby residents in the short-term, and may affect larger population in the long-term. Continuation of bauxite mining won't just affect the health, but also cause potentially irreversible damage to the ecology and agriculture on a wide scale.
Residents near bauxite mining should also take extra precautions and monitor their families and community members from being exposed to and inhalation of bauxite.
Bauxite mining may contribute to the economy of Malaysia, but when public health is at stake, banning it will outweigh the benefits and avert healthcare problems.
Continuation of bauxite mining won't just affect the health, but also cause potentially irreversible damage to the ecology and agriculture on a wide scale.