Week of 02/20/2005

Dear EarthTalk: What impact does mining for diamonds and other gems have on the environment?

—Tiffany Schultz, Dayton, OH

Gem mining around the world can indeed be very destructive to the surrounding environment, leading to many problems such as soil erosion and sedimentation, water pollution and depletion, poisoning of wildlife and vegetation, flooding—even landslides. The contents of "mine tailings"—rock and other waste materials separated and left behind in the mining process—can wreak havoc on nearby agricultural lands, and pose myriad human health problems.

In the United States, mining companies are legally obligated to conduct environmental impact studies of proposed sites and then, if approved by regulators, follow the letter of the law regarding the protection of wildlife, air and water, and the proper disposal of hazardous waste. Furthermore, many U.S. states have "reclamation" laws on the books calling for the safeguarding of surface and groundwater around mining operations, and cleanup and re-vegetation after the fact to restore mining areas to their original condition.

But mines outside U.S. borders are not subject to the same rules as they are here in the U.S., even if run by American companies. Large-scale demand means large-scale mining operations, and that often means massive amounts of sedimentation and tailings falling into water systems around the world. The mercury and cyanide used to separate gold and copper from rock also make their way into our air and water.

With no country-of-origin labeling laws or system in the jewelry and gem trade, consumers can never be sure if their bracelets, rings and necklaces come from responsible sources or from companies whose mining operations are polluting, destroying wildlife habitat, exploiting poor or indigenous people (and their resources)—or funding a civil war, as does the diamond trade in Angola and Sierra Leone.

According to Friends of the Earth, mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold in 1996 was dumping 110,000 tons of mine tailings into the local river system on a daily basis. Plans to expand Freeport’s mining activities in Indonesia, according to the company’s own environmental auditors, could "increase its dumping of untreated tailings to 285,000 tons daily," presenting serious health challenges for local residents who have little in the way of power or resources to halt such activity.

Obtaining jewels, however, does not have to be a destructive proposition. People have been finding valuable gems and minerals for centuries by panning for them themselves in rivers and streams. There are even "theme parks" scattered across U.S., such as Gold City, in Franklin, North Carolina, that let you "mine your own gemstones." And companies such as Junk to Jewels and Snooty Jewelry sell jewelry made from recycled materials, handmade beads and glass. Another company, Global Marketplace, sells a wide range of jewelry made by artists in developing countries such as Nepal, Mexico and Chile, thus helping producers in these nations increase their standard of living above the poverty line.

CONTACTS: Friends of the Earth, (877) 843-8687, www.foe.org ; Gold City, (800) 713-7767, www.goldcityamusement.com ; Junk to Jewels, www.junktojewels.net; Snooty Jewelry, www.snootyjewelry.com ; Global Marketplace, www.globalmarketplace.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any environmental or health drawbacks to putting vinyl siding on my house?

—Charles Leach, via e-mail

Vinyl siding may not pose identifiable risks once installed properly on your home, but its production and disposal contribute to a wide range of health and environmental problems. In producing Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), the basic element in all vinyl products, workers are exposed to a multitude of hazardous chemicals, These include chlorine gas, which can cause eye and skin irritation and breathing difficulties in the short term, and lung disease, among other maladies, from prolonged exposure.

Meanwhile, according to Greenpeace, the production process releases other dangerous chemicals, such as dioxin, into the environment surrounding PVC factories. Dioxin nearly wiped out the bald eagle in the lower 48 states, and it has been linked to cancer, endometriosis, neurological damage, immune system damage, respiratory problems, liver and kidney damage and birth defects in humans.

Perhaps an even larger problem is that there is no responsible way to dispose of PVC and vinyl siding at the end of its lifecycle. Landfills do not knowingly accept it, as it can pollute groundwater and result in dioxin-forming landfill fires. And unfortunately, vinyl cannot be recycled due to the chlorine used in its production. If mixed inadvertently into a recycling load, vinyl will contaminate everything therein.

Meanwhile, incinerating vinyl releases poisonous chlorine gas as well as dioxin into the air. When a house with vinyl siding catches fire, dioxin and other toxic gases escape into the air, posing an even greater threat than the fire itself in some cases. It is not unusual, fire fighters say, for people trapped in building fires to die of exposure to chemically toxic fumes before the flames actually reach them. Recently, a vinyl scrap yard fire forced the evacuation of 200 people from a Virginia community, while another created a major airborne dioxin hazard in Ontario.

"We know enough about the dangers of PVC to begin to phase it out," says Lois Gibbs, the founder of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice. "We need to tell corporations to protect our health and environment by switching to non-PVC materials." Gibbs is the housewife-turned-activist who spurred the government into creating its Superfund program to clean-up contaminated waste sites around the country after she discovered that her neighborhood in Love Canal, NY in 1978 was located on a 20,000-ton chemical waste dump.

Luckily for concerned homeowners, safer alternatives to vinyl siding do exist. According to the organization Greenaction, siding made from wood, fiber-cement board, or polypropylene is better for the environment and for human health. While some of these materials are available at Home Depot, local stores selling only green building materials would offer the best selection.

CONTACT: Greenpeace, www.greenpeaceusa.org ; Center for Health, Environment & Justice, www.besafenet.com ; Greenaction, www.greenaction.org .