Toxic Risks of Mining Rare Earths

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 3:19 PM

Mining rare earth metals is something that China has been at the top of the charts for a long time, but as demand grows so do the amount of mining plants.  Countries like Malaysia and Brazil have been warned that mining in certain areas for these rare earths comes with a large risk of exposure to low-level radioactive element thorium.  Exposure like this has been directly related to the increased risk for lung, pancreatic and various other forms of cancers.

This is not to say that all mining sites of rare earth metals will have these risks, however the way some of these newer plants are keeping the waste and the site that they choose to dig are creating the risks for workers.  One specific site that is Bayan-Obo that has operated more than 40 years in China and is China’s largest rare earths project.  This site is reported by the Institute for Applied Ecology as having an 11 square-kilometer waste pond – that’s three times the size of Central Park in New York City!  According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, China “has never actually worked out pollutant discharge standards for the rare earth industry.”

One thing that most people don’t realize is that the cellphone in their pocket or the laptop on their desk uses these metals that were mined from sites that have hints of radioactivity.  We look at nuclear power plants and set strict guidelines, but rare earth projects require the same amount of care in order to protect the environment from damages and this is not something that happens as often as it should.


Another company is Lynas who moved the processing of its rare earths to Malaysia because of tax inconveniences that were in place in Australia where the metals were mined.  According to my source, the way that Lynas plans to dispose of the wastewater through an open channel rather than sending the water through a closed pipeline.  Scientists say that this is going to emit low levels of carcinogenic radioactivity for centuries which will affect the citizens of Malaysia.  China has already seen many issues like this over the past decades, and third world countries are now facing the threats of this same effect because companies are refusing to take the necessary precautions to protect both their workers and the people around their facilities.

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