From phones to bones: Study shows the potential health impact of lead mining

Photo by Halacious on Unsplash

There are many problems with the marketer’s dream that smartphones should be upgraded every two years, with ethical violations at practically every point on the supply chain, long before a handset is discarded as ewaste. But one concern not often flagged is the relatively minor but persistent use of lead – one of an average of 62 metals used in the production of smartphones for soldering parts together. 

There’s a reason that lead has been phased out in use in pipes and paint: it’s toxic, can harm the body’s organs and can cause developmental problems in children. Granted, there’s not too much lead in mainstream smartphones thanks to safety regulations, but given the billions of phones on Earth, that’s still an awful lot of the stuff mined and used worldwide. 

And thanks to a new study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, we now have a pretty worrying insight into how much humans are passively impacted by this thirst for lead. The team analysed 132 bone fragments from a cemetery in central Rome used for 12,000 years, up until the 17th century, and found that lead concentration in the samples closely correlated with the rise and fall of worldwide lead production.

“The more lead we produce, the more people are likely to be absorbing it into their bodies,” said Professor Yigal Erel, lead author of the study. “This has a highly toxic effect.”

The biggest threat is, of course, to those that work directly with lead: miners extracting it, and those looking to break it down in recycling facilities. But it seems that even those who simply exist in times of high lead use show signs of exposure, from water and air. 

And the bones from the study will have been from humans that died no later than 1650 – long before lead became an essential part of batteries, phones, wind turbines, solar panels and other technological marvels. As these break down over time, the toxicity will leak into the air we breathe and the soil we use for agriculture. Not ideal.

“The close relationship between lead production rates and lead concentrations in humans in the past, suggests that without proper regulation we will continue to experience the damaging health impacts of toxic metals contamination,” Erel cautioned.

“Any expanded use of metals should go hand in hand with industrial hygiene, ideally safe metal recycling and increased environmental and toxicological consideration in the selection of metals for industrial use.”

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