Why is mining a concern?
Mining is the extraction of mineral resources from the earth. These resources include ores, such as gold, iron, and bauxite, which are mined to extract and produce aluminum; precious and building stones, such as diamonds and granite; and solid fuels, such as coal and oil shale. Surface mining methods include strip mining, open pit mining, and quarrying. Underground mining extracts the resource below the surface of the earth and brings it to the surface.
Since there are many different types of mines, mining involves many health and safety concerns. Health concerns in mining include exposure to coal dust, silica dust, metal dust, diesel exhaust and particulate matter, asbestos, lead, solvents, noise, and welding fumes. Asbestos is listed as a human carcinogen in the Fourteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program; diesel exhaust particulates, lead, and some solvents are listed as "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens." Skin exposure to chemical agents from mining can result in skin disorders.
Coal miners can contract a disabling and potentially fatal lung disease called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly known as Black Lung disease, which is caused by inhaling excessive amounts of coal mine dust. Coal mine dust can also cause emphysema and bronchitis. Silica dust is a concern in the mining of metals, nonmetals, stone, and gravel. It is more toxic than coal dust. Silicosis is a disabling and often fatal lung disease caused by breathing dust containing high levels of crystalline silica.
Health concerns related to mining include exposure to radioactive mining waste. Naturally-occurring radioactive material may be present in uranium mining waste; copper mining and production waste; gold and silver mining waste; waste rock and sludge from extraction of rare earths (a group of elements that have electrical properties); titanium sludge, dust, and sand; and zircon sludge, dust, and sand. Copper mining wastes constitute the largest quantity of metal mining and processing wastes in the United States.
Another mining health concern is exposure to radon, an invisible and odorless radioactive gas associated with uranium mining and several other underground mining industries.
Radioactive pollution is a serious threat to the health and welfare of people working in or living near a uranium mine. Some miners were exposed to high levels of radioactivity in uranium mines and mills on Navajo reservations years ago. When mining ceased in the late 1970s, mining companies abandoned mines without sealing tunnel openings, filling pits, or removing radioactive uranium ore and mine waste, sometimes known as “uranium tailings”. These sites remain on Navajo reservations today and expose families living near these mines to radioactive waste.
Mercury is a health hazard in the gold and silver mining industry in the U.S. It can be naturally present in ore and produced as a by-product in gold and silver ore processing and production. In December 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the first national standard to reduce mercury emissions from gold ore processing and production.
Asbestos contamination can be a problem in talc and vermiculite mines. Vermiculite is used in potting soil, insulation, and packing materials. Pure vermiculite does not contain asbestos. Exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen.
Underground coal mines, surface coal mines, abandoned coal mines, and coal handling facilities release methane, an invisible and odorless greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. The greenhouse effect from mines is small. However, methane can form an explosive mixture when mixed with air, especially in enclosed mines.
Abandoned mine lands pose serious threats to human health and the environment. There are as many as 500,000 abandoned mines in the United States. They exist on private and federal lands. Most abandoned coal mines are in the East, primarily in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Most abandoned ore and metal mines are in the West. Abandoned mine land sites include dangerous vertical mine shafts and unstable horizontal openings. Old support structures may be rotten and cause cave-ins. Lethal concentrations of deadly gases can accumulate in underground passages, including methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. There may be pockets of air with little or no oxygen. Unused or misfired explosives can become unstable and deadly. Soil and water in abandoned mines may be contaminated. Loose materials in piles or trash heaps can collapse on hikers. Sites may include stockpiled waste rock and waste piles, power lines, abandoned heavy equipment, fuel storage tanks, electric machinery, and radioactive materials. Water-filled quarries can hide hazards such as rock ledges and old machinery.
Coal mining employees are more likely to be killed or incur an injury or illness than workers in private industry as a whole, and their injuries are more likely to be severe, according the U.S. Department of Labor.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Abandoned Mine Lands (Environmental Protection Agency)
Abandoned Mine Lands Portal (Abandoned Mine Lands Portal Partnership)
Abandoned Mines Are Potential Killers (Bureau of Land Management) (PDF — 1.69 MB)
Coal Mine Dust Control - Continuing the Fight Against Black Lung (Mine Safety and Health Administration) (PDF — 66.45 KB)
Environmental Justice for the Navajo: Uranium Mining in the Southwest (University of Michigan)
Human Health Impacts on the Navajo Nation from Uranium Mining (Carleton College)
Mine Safety and Health Administration home page (Mine Safety and Health Administration)
Mine Tailings (University of Arizona)
Mining and Mineral Processing Wastes (Environmental Protection Agency)
Mining Topics (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
NIOSH Mining home page (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Stay Out! Stay Alive! (Mine Safety and Health Administration)
Last Updated: November 28, 2016