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Elon Musk's latest Tesla announcement is sparking a conversation about child labor in the mining industry

"Even for the small amount of cobalt that we do use, we will make sure that no child labor is being exploited."

Elon Musk, Tesla investigate on child labor

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Elon Musk has committed Tesla to a third-party audit of its battery supply chain, which will investigate any potential links to child labor in its use of cobalt. 

Although Tesla shareholders previously voted against a third-party audit, Musk revealed at an annual meeting that there would be an investigation, which he says he will personally review. 

Cobalt is a core component in the lithium-ion batteries that power most electric vehicles (EVs). For these batteries to work, they rely on a cathode to control the flow of ions. When a battery is charging, its lithium ions transfer from the positively charged cathode, made partly out of cobalt, to a negative anode. When its power is draining, the lithium ions pass the opposite way. 

Lithium-ion batteries use a combination of metals and oxygen to create this energy storage, and cobalt has been among the most popular materials used. 

Yet, even as these batteries enable a switch from gas-powered cars to cleaner EVs, they also have negative environmental and ethical impacts. 

Half of the world's cobalt reserves can be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where cobalt mines have been linked to hazardous working conditions and child labor.

Around 40,000 children are working in dangerous cobalt mines, according to the UN's children's agency. 

Pit collapses are common in the cobalt industry, leading to untold numbers of workers' deaths. Artisanal mining makes up roughly a third of the industry, where health and safety regulations are minimal, and risk-taking is rife, often with devastating consequences. 

The waste produced by cobalt mining also carries its own set of health risks. Cobalt is toxic to breathe in and touch and can contribute to cancer risk. The dust in the mines can also contain traces of uranium, which is linked to congenital disabilities and respiratory problems.

Sulfur may also be present, which becomes sulphuric acid when it is exposed to air and water. Run-off from the mines can poison nearby water sources for hundreds of years and choke crops.

Tesla announced it would begin phasing out cobalt in 2020 and now uses cobalt-free batteries in at least half of its vehicles. Musk aims to root out ties to child labor from the cobalt batteries they have left. 

"Even for the small amount of cobalt that we do use, we will make sure that no child labor is being exploited," he told Tesla's shareholders, according to Benzinga

"Most consumers are only aware of the 'clean' aspects of electric vehicles," Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD's director of international trade, said in a statement. "The dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight."

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