Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Cell Phones a Cancer on Congo 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  June 12 / 11

Zack Gross

A top story in the news these days is reports of growing evidence that cell phones may cause cancer. 

While the rich world worries about how its use of this technology leads to illness and death here, the fact is that the mining necessary to supply needed components to the electronics industry has been a part of deadly war and environmental degradation in central Africa, most specifically in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Two essential minerals for this are found in Eastern Congo – Columbite and Tantalite - and are combined into one – coltan.  This valuable mineral is described as a “resource curse
,” because instead of bringing wealth to the poor people who mine it, it has brought only negatives.  While coltan is not a term on the lips of every individual who uses a cell phone, laptop computer, car or camera, it is (until a synthetic one is found) a key component to their existence and use. 

With high unemployment and ease at accessing coltan, which is available near the earth’s surface, armed groups sometimes hire and sometimes force local people, at as little as US$1 per day, to do the work.  Some people are artisanal miners, meaning that they work small-scale for themselves and sell what they find.

Congo (the DRC) is the largest miner of coltan in the world and much of this production is controlled by armed factions involved in civil war or territorial conflict.  Congolese Coltan is sold outside the world market system at lower prices than charged by other producers such as Australia, Brazil or Canada.  Congolese groups use the black market and low prices, and also often ship coltan in cargoes labels as “tin” to avoid duties and taxes.  These tactics further impoverish the already weak DRC government, making it less able to deliver programs to its people. 

Neighbouring countries, such as Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, also take advantage of the DRC’s weakness to support local armed groups and themselves benefit from coltan smuggling.

The DRC has been the venue for violence and oppression going back generations, from the infamous Belgian King Leopold’s subjugation and enslavement of the population in order to harvest the rubber crop in the late Nineteenth Century through the overthrow of democratically elected nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba in the 1960s to the more recent days of Mobutu Sesi Seko’s newly-named “Zaire” and finally “Africa’s World War” of 25 armed groups and eight nations in the early 2000s. 

It is estimated that 1,200 people may die every day in the DRC due to the effects of poverty and conflict and that millions have died in recent years. 

Environmentally, in Eastern Congo, the location of greatest wealth and greatest conflict, mining activities have been disastrous. 

With the overwhelming Western demand for coltan, in our age of i-Pads and i-Pods, extraction has been stepped up and more than ten thousand new people have migrated into fragile ecological zones in the area to work.  

National parks and nature reserves in the region, established to protect rare Mountain Gorillas, elephants, okapi and other flora and fauna, are being cut down by migrants to clear land for homes and to provide wood for cooking and heating.  Deforestation and fires have also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions (which trees normally clean from the atmosphere), as well as soil erosion and the silting of rivers.

With the increase in population has arisen the increase in demand for food in the area. Poor infrastructure for access has led to increased consumption of wild, as opposed to domesticated, animals such as elephants and gorillas.  Poaching, once curtailed by authorities, is rife.  Endangered species are being depleted or wiped out.  As well, some wild meats are not safe for consumption and lead to serious illness in humans.  Finally, the mining process creates wastes that soak into local soils or are dumped into local rivers, making toxic the water needed and used by wildlife and humans.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that cell phones fall into the 2-B category of cancer risk, as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Cell phones, due to the coltan mineral mix that is essential to their operation, would then fall into the 1-A category of being lethal to human beings, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The value that we place on our technology has helped to increase poverty, environmental degradation and conflict in a particularly unfortunate part of the world.



Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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