Large scale gold mining in sub-Saharan Africa has reduced infant mortality in nearby communities by 50% among those born within 10km of a gold mine.
Gold mining, and economic development generally, is a proven way of reducing infant deaths.
A study by Anja Benshaul-Tolonen published in The Economic Journal of the UK also finds that local industrial development may be an effective way to reduce infant mortality in developing countries with high rates of mortality arising from poverty.
Drawing on data on women’s fertility records from demographic and health surveys and large-scale gold mining data from eight countries over 30 years, the study shows that the average mortality rate in the communities before the mines open is 151 deaths per 1 000 births.
The study shows that infant mortality rates drop during the mine investment stage, and continue falling following the mine opening.
The author finds that the rate drops by around 79 deaths per 1 000 births. This is equivalent to the total gains in infant survival achieved in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s.
Mortality rates start increasing after eight to 10 years of mine operation, which could be because of mine closure or because of a reversal of the positive health effects, according to the study.
There appears to be no evidence that pollution, which builds up as the mine goes into production, mitigates “the positive effects on infant mortality stemming from economic growth”.
The main causes of infant deaths in sub-Saharan Africa are poverty and the consequent malnutrition, as well as lack of access to basic health care.
The study suggests lower infant mortality rates around large-scale gold mines may be explained by the fact that mothers living nearby are 27% more likely to work in the service sector. There are other possible explanations, including increased health knowledge and access to remedies.
The risk of infant mortality however remains high in sub-Saharan Africa, with one of every nine children dying before their fifth birthday.
The author offers a comparison of African infant mortality rates with those of China before and during its economic boom. In China, mortality fell by 58 deaths per 1 000 births between 1960 and 1970, or 79 deaths between 1960 and 1980, from an average of 121 deaths per 1 000 in 1960.
While the author argues that rising income levels will reduce poverty, if industries are polluting, they can negatively affect health in the population.
More research into adult health needed
The study does not analyse adult health, and future studies should explore lifetime health of the population. And, the author suggests, as mortality levels become lower and the populations richer, industrial development may have very little, or even negative, effects on infant mortality rates as seen in developed countries.
Last year seven mining groups settled a class action suit filed by thousands of underground miners suffering from silicosis and/or tuberculosis. The mining groups agreed to pay nearly R5 billion to the workers, each of whom will receive between R70 000 and R500 000 depending on the seriousness of their illness.
What is less clear is how gold mining affects the health of adults in surrounding communities. There is a sizeable body of research showing the negative health effects suffered by communities close to coal mines.
A 2016 study by UK-based air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland, who examined the health impacts and associated economic costs of just one type of pollutant from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, estimated that deaths in surrounding communities exceeded 2 200 a year, with nearly 2 800 cases of chronic bronchitis in adults each year, and more than 9 500 cases of bronchitis in children aged six to 12. The result – nearly one million lost working days per year.