Does Your Paint Contain Cobalt Mined By Children In The #DRC?

Jim Vallette - February 5, 2016

Amnesty International recently reported on the connection between popular consumer products and cobalt mined by young children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Their research “exposes the need for transparency, without which multinationals can profit from human-rights abuses like child labor without checking where and how the raw materials in their products are mined.” [1]
Amnesty’s investigation focused on the cobalt supply chain that leads to batteries used in computers, electric cars, and mobile phones. But common building and construction products, like paint, natural oil stains, and countertops, also are major end users of cobalt, often from the same suppliers used by smartphone manufacturers.
This Is What We Die For documents the horrors of mining cobalt in the southern DRC. This region produces half of the world's cobalt. [2] Artisanal miners (defined as those who mine by hand), numbering over 100,000, work the scraps from larger operations. They use "the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground. Artisanal miners (defined as those who mine by hand), numbering over 100,000, work the scraps from larger operations. They use “the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground. Artisanal miners include children as young as seven who scavenge for rocks containing cobalt in the discarded by-products of industrial mines, and who wash and sort the ore before it is sold,” Amnesty reports. “The miners do not have gloves, boots, helmets, or face masks to prevent them from breathing in cobalt dust.” Tunnel collapses and fatalities are common. Most go unreported. [3]
China refines most of the cobalt mined in the DRC, and the United States is the largest consumer of the refined cobalt made in China. [4]
Amnesty places Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company Ltd. at the center of this trade. A search of the company’s website reveals that it produces cobalt compounds not only for smartphone batteries, but also for building products. It advertises cobalt oxide for use as a drying agent in paints, [5] cobalt chloride for ceramics and glass, [6] and cobalt hydroxide for pigments. [7]
Healthy Building Network research found cobalt compounds in a wide range of building materials, including: 
  • Paints and wood flooring finishes. Used as a drying agent and pigment. [8] Over 100 paint and coating manufacturers in the U.S. have reported releases of cobalt to the US Environmental Protection Agency. [9] An EPA database of material safety data sheets lists hundreds of building products, mainly paints and coatings (including stains and sealants) that use cobalt compounds.
  • Pigments for ceramics and plastics. [10] Two dozen U.S. pigment manufacturers have reported releasing cobalt into the environment. [11]
  • Unsaturated Polyester Resins. Used as a curing agent. [12] Unsaturated polyester resins are used in textiles and solid surface countertops. [13] "Replacement of cobalt is one of the main challenges for the unsaturated polyester resin industry because of its extensive use," notes Akzo Nobel, which developed a range of cobalt-free accelerators in response to "environmental pressure." [14]
The building industry lags the textile and electronics industries in dealing with overseas injustices. Likely green building champions of these issues include the International Living Futures Institute, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the Business + Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA, through its level® certification) and the USGBC (through the committee that has developed Social Equity Pilot credits for LEED). Each body has built some supply chain social fairness measures into its standards and is in the process of revising its standards. We will report back on their progress on further incorporating global social justice issues.
Innovative building product manufacturers should take notice, get ahead of the leading edge, and ensure that any cobalt or other materials in their supply chain are not tied to the worst working conditions on the planet.
ACTION REQUESTED
Amnesty recommends the following Tweets to phone companies:
  • Do you know the story behind the cobalt in your phone? @Microsoft (or @HP) do you know?
  • Does your smartphone contain cobalt mined by children in the #DRC?
  • Do you know the story behind the cobalt in your phone? 
We can apply this campaign to building product manufacturers: If you want to ask the same of a paint or other building product manufacturer that uses cobalt, just replace the product type and company names in the tweet. Then let us know if manufacturers are taking action. Hopefully there will be some good news.
Thanks to Melissa Coffin, James Connelly, Michel Dedeo, Tom Lent, Greg Norris, Susan Sabella, and Peter Sullivan for their assistance with this article.

Footnotes
[1] "'This Is What We Die For:' Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt." Amnesty International, January 2016. http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/this_what_we_die_for_-_report.pdf.
[2] "Mineral Commodity Summaries: Cobalt." US Geological Survey, January 2015. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/mcs-2015-cobal.pdf. 
[3] "'This Is What We Die For:' Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt." Amnesty International, January 2016. http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/this_what_we_die_for_-_report.pdf.
[4] "Mineral Commodity Summaries: Cobalt." US Geological Survey, January 2015. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/mcs-2015-cobal.pdf.
[5] "Cobalt Sulfate." Huayou Cobalt. Accessed January 27, 2016. http://en.huayou.com/products_detail/&productId=48.html.
[6] "Cobalt Oxide." Huayou Cobalt. Accessed January 27, 2016. http://en.huayou.com/products_detail/&productId=35.html.
[7] "Cobalt Oxalate." Huayou Cobalt. Accessed January 27, 2016. http://en.huayou.com/products_detail/&productId=60.html.
[8] "Mineral Commodity Summaries: Cobalt." US Geological Survey, January 2015. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/mcs-2015-cobal.pdf ; Shield, Kim B. "Cobalt." US Geological Survey, April 21, 1994. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/210494.pdf ; "Technical Document: Special Parquet Oil, Solvent-Free." BIOFA Natural Paints. https://www.pharosproject.net/uploads/files/sources/1828/1332183117.pdf ; "Material Safety Data Sheet: 1700 Kel-Guard Alkyd Rust Preventative Enamel 61 Arctic White." Kelly-Moore Paint Company, January 26, 2011. https://pharosproject.net/uploads/files/sources/538/1381856814.pdf ; "Common Ingredients: Natural Oil-Based Flooring Stains and Sealants." Pharos Project, December 23, 2015. Accessed January 27, 2016. https://pharosproject.net/material/show/2000154. 
[9] "TRI Search Results: NAIC Code 32551 [paints and Coatings], Chemical Name Beginning With Cobalt" Toxics Release Inventory, US Environmental Protection Agency, October 27, 2015. http://1.usa.gov/1JFKGmw 
[10] Shield, Kim B. "Cobalt." US Geological Survey, April 21, 1994. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/210494.pdf 
[11] "TRI Search Results: NAIC Code 32551 [paints and Coatings], Chemical Name Beginning With Cobalt." Toxics Release Inventory, US Environmental Protection Agency, October 27, 2015. http://1.usa.gov/1JFKGmw Fortunately, almost all ceramic tile made in the United States no longer uses heavy metals, including cobalt. However, over 80 percent of ceramic tile sold in the US is imported. See Vallette, Jim. "Made in the USA: A Healthy Choice for Ceramic Tiles." The Signal, April 2, 2014. https://www.pharosproject.net/blog/show/184/ceramic-migration
[12] "Mineral Commodity Summaries: Cobalt." US Geological Survey, January 2015. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/mcs-2015-cobal.pdf.
[13] Vallette, Jim. "Choosing Countertops from the Wheel of Commerce." The Signal, May 8, 2012. https://www.pharosproject.net/blog/show/132/choosing-countertops-from-the-wheel-of-commerce. 
[14] Zuijderduin, Roel, and Willem Böttger. "Cobalt-free curing taking off."Reinforced Plastics 57, no. 1 (2013): 29-32. https://www.akzonobel.com/polymer/system/images/Cobalt%20free%20curing%20taking%20off_tcm96-80525.pdf 

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