The Deadly Tin Inside Your Smartphone – by Cam Simpson (Bloomberg Businessweek – August 23, 2012)

On May 29, in the bottom of a tin-mining pit on Bangka Island in Indonesia, a wall about 16 feet high collapsed, sending a wave of earth crashing down on a 40-year-old father of two. His name was Rosnan. The dirt crushed his legs, sent something sharp slicing through his right thigh, and buried him from the waist down. His partner, panicked but unhurt, scrambled out of the pit screaming for help. About 20 other miners rushed in to dig Rosnan out with their bare hands.

“He kept repeating, ‘Please, please help me,’ ” recalls Rosnan’s son, Dian Chandra, 20, who rode in the back of a car with his father to a nearby hospital. Rosnan lost too much blood. “I couldn’t find a pulse,” says Dr. Mario, the emergency room physician on duty. Dr. Mario declared Rosnan dead at about 3 p.m. (Like many Indonesians, including Dr. Mario, Rosnan had one name.)

Back at the mine, someone stuck a withered sapling into the soft bottom of the pit near the spot where Rosnan fell—a far too frequent sight in the mines of Bangka, where Rosnan was the first of six to die on the job during a single week this spring. The other victims didn’t make it to the hospital. All, including a 15-year-old boy, were buried alive.

Three days after Rosnan’s death, and following Friday prayers at the local mosque, his family and friends gathered to mourn him at his brother’s cinder-block home. They sat on the bare floor, sharing a meal of rice, noodles, and fish stew. Rosnan’s 57-year-old brother, Rani, recalls that Rosnan had few options outside the pit. “We have to live,” he says. “We need money.”

The head of the village said the area where Rosnan was working was an illegal mine, and that it would be refilled and re-seeded. Yet even as Rosnan’s family was mourning, three teenage boys, soaking in the rain, scraped for tin ore at the bottom of the same pit, right near the sapling. Two said they were 15 years old, the third 16. All were barefoot in knee-length shorts as they dug into the steep, sheer face. They were among about a dozen miners working in the immediate area. They knew about Rosnan’s death, and kept digging.

Rosnan worked among thousands of Indonesians who wield pickaxes and buckets each day on Bangka Island, extracting the tin that becomes the solder that binds components in the world’s tablet computers, smartphones, and other electronics. Police figures show Bangka miners died in accidents similar to Rosnan’s at an average of almost one a week last year, more than double the rate from 2010. There is good reason to believe it’s getting worse. At the end of July, five Bangka miners were killed beneath another mudslide.

In recent years about one-third of all the tin mined in the world has come from Bangka, its sister island Belitung to the east, and the seabeds off the islands’ shores. Because almost half of all tin is turned into solder for the electronics industry, a dominant force in the global tin market today is tablets and smartphones bought by consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The trail from the dangerous mines to the leading names in electronics, including Foxconn Technology Group (HNHPF), the biggest manufacturer for Apple (AAPL) and others, is clear. Shenmao Technology and Chernan Metal Industrial—two of the top solder makers in Asia, both suppliers to Foxconn—say they buy 100 percent of their tin from Indonesia. Shenmao estimates it’s the dominant supplier of solder to China, the cradle of electronics manufacturing, and accounts for 16 percent of the global market. Chernan says other clients have included Sony (SNE), Panasonic (PC), Samsung Electronics, and LG Electronics. Several other solder makers declined to discuss their tin sourcing. But their product is so crucial to electronics that tin is the most common metal used by Apple suppliers, according to data Apple made public earlier this year; 179 suppliers for the company, maker of the iPad and iPhone, which are assembled by Foxconn, use tin in components for Apple.
The top of seahorse-shaped Bangka is about one degree south of the equator, just off the eastern coast of Sumatra. It has a population of about 960,000 and has been known for tin for centuries. In 1841, when the Dutch controlled the island, an account described an island rumored to be so saturated with the metal that it was poisoning residents until “the unfortunate wretches invariably perished.”

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