Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by user Kevin Harber

Melamine, coltan, and oversight in the global market


On a flight to Tokyo in September as the Chinese melamine tainted milk scare was breaking, I found myself looking suspiciously at the powdered creamer that came with my coffee. "Where does this stuff come from," I asked the flight attendant who assured me galley supplies were loaded in the U.S., not in Asia. At my final destination, Manila, tabloid headlines shouted, "Milk Victims" and "Tainted Flour?" By the time I was on my way home, candy was being recalled throughout Asia. Chocolate bars at an airport newsstand suddenly looked ominous. A month later, melamine - a nitrogen-based industrial chemical used in plastics and fertilizers and, illegally, to boost the protein content of dairy products and processed food and the culprit in last summer's poison pet food scandal - was being detected in numerous grocery products. On November 20, Reuters reported over 1000 Chinese infants still hospitalized for ailments resulting from the tainted milk. And melamine's now turning up in infant formula sold in the U.S.

There is once again fighting in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The terrible conflict, essentially an extension of that country's devastating ongoing civil war, is being fought in a region rich with mineral resources that include tin, cobalt, and a once obscure pair of ores, columbium and tantalum together known as coltan - all elements vital to high tech electronics. Tin is being used with silver to substitute for now widely banned lead solder. Cobalt is a key element in energy-efficient batteries, including those used in hybrid cars. Coltan is used in capacitors - tiny devices that store electricity in portable electronics like cell phones. The DRC has the world's largest reserves of cobalt, and about 80 percent of the world's coltan reserves, although much of what is now processed comes from Australia and Brazil. During the high tech boom in 2000, coltan prices skyrocketed luring farmers in northern DRC to lucrative but dangerous mining work. War profiteers have been implicated in this metals trade. In response, major electronics firms and international metals companies pledged not to use Congolese coltan. The U.N. launched an investigation but its findings were revised to be less harsh and this work languished in the fall of 2001. When civil war flared in the DRC this year, Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced a bill to prohibit U.S. imports of coltan from the DRC until it can be proven that sales do not benefit groups engaged in human rights and international law violations. In today's global marketplace, it takes a tenacious detective to discover the source of all materials and parts that go into anything processed or manufactured, be it a candy bar or laptop. The same factory that makes chemicals to extend shelf life and add texture and flavor to snack food may well make chemicals never intended to be washed down with a glass of milk. When it comes to metals, short of a certification process like that documenting the origin of diamonds, one has to rely on voluntary assurances. These commodity markets involve many middlemen and processors so once an ore leaves a mine, it's difficult to trace precisely. Coltan and melamine are examples of a recurring problem that will continue unless some fundamental practices change. Auditable oversight and transparency have upfront costs but the price of ignoring such due diligence can be even more costly. Perhaps requiring accurately documented parts and materials sourcing could prompt both product design that eliminates hazards and improves labor practices.

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———- Elizabeth Grossman is the author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health. b