Part 1: Identifying the Issue
Alas, the aforementioned heavy metals are not, in fact, fun elements that provide a party for the environment, but are instead metallic elements which can have a profound and profoundly negative impact on our environment as we know it, not to mention our bodies.
According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “The term heavy metal refers to any metallic chemical element that has a relatively high density and is toxic or poisonous at low concentrations.” Some noted (heavy) metals which are known to be particularly dangerous for humans include arsenic, lead and mercury. The human body is not the only victim of metals, however; the environment has fallen prey to the various mechanisms by which we mine and extract metal from the ground.
This is not to say that metals, or the common need for metals, is a bad thing, as we need metals every day, such as zinc, mercury, nickel, tungsten, iron, copper, gold, aluminum and silver. According to the American Geological Institute’s Environmental Awareness series, these metals and more “are vital building blocks of our civilization.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “a general definition [of metals] based on physical properties is that metals are a large group of substances that are opaque, form alloys, conduct heat and electricity, and are usually malleable. More than 80 of the 125 known elements fit this definition.” Simply put, metals are required for basic functions in life, and are essential in the vast majority of activities in society today, such as communication, transportation and shelter.
According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “Each year, the $1.5 trillion global chemicals industry produces tens of thousands of substances that permeate the environment and affect the health and well-being of humans across the planet. On any given day, people are exposed to a wide array of chemicals, from industrial pollutants in the air, to pesticide residues in foods, to heavy metals in drinking water.” The AGI notes that some of the main environmental issues associated with mining for metals include: the physical disruption of landscapes “as a result of mine workings,” increased “acidity of soils” (which can then “be toxic to vegetation and a source of metals released to the environment”), “degrade surface and groundwater quality as a result of the oxidation and dissolution of metal-bearing minerals,” and increased levels of “air-borne dust and other emissions, such as sulfur dioxides from smelters, that could contaminate the atmospheres and surrounding areas.”
It was only relatively recently that mining companies began to take a closer look at the footprint they were leaving upon the environment. Decades of slipshod practices and a devil-may-care attitude left a legacy of lands pillaged and left leeched of nutrients, poisoned soils (with the introduction of chemicals in metal-extracting processes), and water sources contaminated from mining adventures, among other lasting impacts. And while more environmentally-friendly practices are coming into vogue in some areas, so long as a huge demand exists for metals, the opportunity for negative environmental impacts remains, particularly as not all nations have embraced the use of environmentally-friendly mining practices (including China, which exports a huge amount of metals we use). However, there are ways to work on reducing the need for such metals, such as through recycling and increased use of synthetics! Read on…
Part 2: So What?
Sometimes identifying the problem itself can be the easy part. When it actually comes down to determining a feasible solution, sometimes it might seem easier to curse the proverbial darkness than to light that brilliant candle of creativity. But fear not, oh friends of the environment: there is a way to help Mother Earth, without entirely giving up your way of life.
Metals, as mentioned before, are all around us, and are vital to life. Metals provide instruments to conduct electricity, materials by which to construct vehicles such as cars, trains and plains, tools necessary in twenty-first century technology, teaching opportunities (particularly in labs) and even provide ways to preserve food. (Tin foil to cover yesterday’s lasagna, and a can of soup, anyone?) For many years, human beings have relied on metals to help in many ways in their daily lives, so to ask individuals simply to give up using metals would be unrealistic. What individuals can do, however, is to seek out ways every day to reduce the new of new metals, in some of the following ways:
Recycle! Recycling has been the “cool” things for decades – and with good reason! Recycling is not just a hip trend, but has many followers and recycling can boast real effects. According to the United States Geological Survey, “in 2009, the United States recycled 58 million metric tons of selected metals, an amount equivalent to 73% of the apparent supply of those metals.” Metals require a significant amount of effort in their extraction, and yet, metals can last for a very long time. In essence, because “metals are important, reusable resources,” there is no reason why they should be mined at the same levels, when individuals can simply recycle the metals they already have. The USGS points out that “The reusable nature of metals contributes to the sustainability of their use. Recycling, a significant factor in the supply of many of the metals used by our society, provides environmental benefits such as energy savings and reduced volumes of waste.”
Creativity in the Lab: Another way to reduce a common use of metals (particularly heavy metals) is to decrease their use in laboratory and school environments. The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign’s Division of Research Safety offers a number of tips on how to reduce metal and heavy metal usage, including by eliminating the use of metals “as catalysts… by simply allowing more time for the reaction to come to completion.” The university also points out that “precious and semiprecious metals can be precipitated out of solution,” such as silver, the “reclamation of [which]… is a very common practice.”
Metal Substitutes: Though metals are reusable and can be used repeatedly, other options should also be considered, when it comes to reducing man’s dependence on metals. And scientists and businesspeople have kept their eyes toward organic synthetic metal substitutes for some time. Scientist and Nobel Prize winner Alan G. MacDiarmid noted that “an organic polymer that possesses the electrical, electronic, magnetic, and optical properties of a metal while retaining the mechanical properties, processibility, etc. commonly associated with a conventional polymer” is also “more commonly known as a synthetic metal.” Interested consumers can do their homework and learn about who may be investing in or utilizing metal substitutes rather than supporting metal mining traditions.
Indomitable optimists realize the infinite potential of all: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – President Teddy Roosevelt. Susie “Danger” Kopecky is a regular contributor to Green Living Press.