Certain minerals directly cause environmental hazards ranging from air and water pollution to contamination within residential communities. Mineral contamination effects include causing disease in humans and wildlife, befouling wilderness and streams, and contributing to global warming. Although some mineral contamination is the result of natural processes, human activity is responsible for most environmental hazards.
Acid Mine Drainage
Acid mine drainage forms when the mineral pyrite reacts with air and water to form sulfuric acid. This acidic flow dissolves heavy metals, including mercury, copper, and lead, which allows them to seep into surface or ground water. Ninety-five percent of America's acid mine drainage problem is concentrated in the mid-Atlantic states, affecting more than 4,500 miles of streams, and is primarily produced in abandoned coal mines. Since no individual or corporate entity claims ownership or responsibility for the abandoned mines that produce the acidic torrents, nobody conducts concerted clean-up efforts.
Arsenic Groundwater Contamination
Arsenic can contaminate groundwater when arsenic-laden minerals dissolve over time, releasing their arsenic into groundwater, but arsenic contamination is more often caused by industrial runoff waste containing arsenic. Arsenic is tasteless and odorless, making it undetectable unless ground and well water is specifically tested for arsenic. "Science Daily" reports that more than 100 million people worldwide are exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in their drinking water, which can cause diabetes and several forms of cancer even in low concentrations.
Asbestos fibers occur naturally in certain rock formations, and these fibers can easily be inhaled, causing health probelms that include lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, a condition that scars lung tissue, making it difficult for oxygen to enter the bloodstream. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's regulations in the mid-1970s began phasing asbestos out of most building materials and consumer products, but the mineral still remains in older buildings and some job sites. Plumbers, electricians, and firefighters are at increased risk of asbestos exposure compared to workers in other occupations because of asbestos's former prevalence in plumbing, electrical components, and building materials.
The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that in one year a typical coal-burning power plant generates 500 tons of particulate matter that can exacerbate asthma and cause bronchitis, 720 tons of carbon monoxide, and 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for global warming. Coal-burning plants also contribute to environmental hazards, including smog and acid rain. "Discovery News" indicates that thousands of underground coal fires worldwide blaze in a perpetual conflagration. These fires start near the surface, then burn unchecked throughout mines and even though these infernos rage underground, they still release carbon dioxide and mercury into the atmosphere.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: Mid-Atlantic Water: Abandoned Mines' Role in Nonpoint Source Pollution
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: What Is Acid Mine Drainage
- West Virginia University Extension Service: Overview of Acid Mine Drainage Treatment with Chemicals
- U.S. Geological Survey: National Water-Quality Assessment: Arsenic in Groundwater Resources of the United States