The white gold that becomes the oil of the future

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September 5, 2017

Can we really define that an electric car is environmentally sustainable?
From the Salar del Uyuni to the battery of electric cars: the environmental impact of lithium extraction

Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, China and Australia are countries where lithium reserves are extremely abundant. The demand from the global market is increasing day by day and the forecasts dictate an increase of 200% in the coming years due to the exponential increase in the demand for electric cars.

A mine of water

In Latin America the two main salt pans, that of Uyuni and Hombre Muerto, are exploited according to the practice of evaporation. Considering that the concentration of lithium is very low in the salt pans, around 500-600 ppm, it can be estimated that for every ton of lithium extracted about two million liters of water evaporate.

As in the extraction of metals, lithium extraction also occurs through the use of chemical products (sodium carbonate, bases and acids) for processing, which end their journey abandoned and smoothed in rivers, lakes and soils in the vicinity of the mine.

Flora and fauna are seriously affected by chemical pollution and reduced water availability.

When the mines settle in the vicinity of communities and human settlements, there is a socio-environmental conflict with irreversible damage due to drought, contaminated and unusable water, soil and air pollution, compromising the life of local populations.

Considering that many of these rural communities base their economy on the salt trade, their economic sphere is also affected, since mining drilling can reverse salinity in various aquifers, reducing surface salinity and increasing it in the deepest aquifers from which the community extracts water for drinking and agricultural use. A DOUBLE IMPACT.

And what consequences does it have on health?

The human body contains about 7 mg of lithium, although its biological function is not yet known. However it has a strong influence on the metabolism and therefore also on the state of mind. With a further dose of 10 mg per liter there is only a slight toxicity, with 15 mg per liter there are confusional states and disabilities in verbal communication, while a dose of 20 mg can be lethal.

Regarding the possible consequences for workers in the sector, there are toxicity studies on the human body, its effects and damages. In the case of lithium powders, common during extraction in open-cast mines, in contact with the humidity of human skin it causes damage similar to burns from caustic soda; while if sucked it causes irritation in the nose and throat, due to its alkalinity, and if we are exposed to it longer it causes damage to the bronchi and pulmonary edema.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center in the United States, the following symptoms of intoxication have been identified: stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and a constant weakness and at higher concentrations problems occur in the coordination of hands and legs, muscle and eye tremors and then fall into a coma.

If the pollution is not so strong, but constant, there may be slight tremors, memory problems, renal failure, loss of body salts and a possible tendency to psychosis.

Information from Litio - El Nuevo Horizonte Minero - Dimensiones Sociales, Económicas y Ambientales "
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