Little attention has been paid to women exposed to vanadium pentoxide. This exposure can occur either through living with their husbands, who mine vanadium and carry the deadly substance in their hair, nails and skin, or through the care and maintenance of mining uniforms. These women live in the community contiguous to the mine, the pollutionpermeates the soil, air and water supply. Research on the impact of vanadium exposure on fetal/child development and pregnancy is scarce. And recently, women have started working in the mine. In addition, animals, such as the chickens that are raised as a source of food in this community are of concern. It’s a vicious cycle: the chickens eat the grass that is contaminated by vanadium dust and the families eat the chickens, thereby completing a cycle of contamination, poison and death.
During my interviews in 1999 with numerous wives of vanadium mine workers, I talked with a widow that described the suspicious death of her infant child. This widow gave birth to three children. Two of the children were sent to live with her mother in another rural area. The child who remained with the couple was often tied to her mother’s back during the laundry of her husband’s uniforms. In addition, the child slept between the mother and father at night. According to the mother, before the child died, she experienced asthma-like symptoms and developed a greenish-colored tongue. She appealed to the mining company for medical assistance for her husband and child but her plea was denied. She later requested burial assistance from the mine but was again denied. Of the forty interviews, this was the most difficult and painful. These interviews provide antidotal information that points toward the necessity for further research of the hazards and health risks of the mining of vanadium.
Widows of vanadium mine workers are left financially destitute. The mine fires the workers once the miners become ill. The workers return home to be cared for by their wives and children, imposing another layer of economic pressure on the home economy. Children are often forced to leave school due to a lack of funds, which are necessary instead for food and housing expenses. Unexpectedly, I found that the majority of the women who I interviewed also complained of upper respiratory illnesses, asthma, bronchitis and cancer. In one interview, a widow told me that she had not eaten in two days. When I visited her home, during an unscheduled visit, I found the kitchen completely without food. When I provided some money for food, I found out later that she took the money and paid her rent instead. After I found out, I asked her why she had not purchased food for her family with the money. She told me that she would rather be hungry than homeless. After completing routine interview questions, I asked her what she missed most about her husband, a miner at the Vametco plant, she replied with “his laughter –it filled our home.”
Adding to the complexity of this situation is the fact that the former apartheid system survived on the exploitation of cheap black labor. Black lives, according to apartheid architects, had no value outside of their relevance to white economic exploitation. Therefore, accurate records were not kept of African deaths and injuries as a result of exposure to vanadium. Despite the dangers and serious health effects on mine workers, the South African economy relies heavily on the mining sector for its foreign exchange. In fact, 60% of the South African foreign exchange is derived from the mining
industry. The international community must come to the aid of South Africa’s vanadium mine workers. Multinational corporations cannot carry out human rights abuses in the name of its western industrial policy. The rights of workers cannot coincide with an accident of birth. The lives and deaths of vanadium mine workers must become part of the American consciousness, particularly since our quality of life is dependent on the daily sacrifice of South African vanadium mine workers.