Baotou, a city in Inner Mongolia, had a population of 97,000 in 1950. Fast forward to 65 years later and the city now has more than 2.5 million people under its 10-county jurisdiction.
What happened? To what can this population increase be attributed?
Three words: rare earth minerals.
Baotou is Inner Mongolia's largest industrial city. Unbeknownst to many, Baotou is a mine for "rare earth" minerals. A rare earth mineral is made up of one or more rare earth elements as major metal constituents. These elements are the unsung heroes of modern technology as they are found in almost everything-from flat screen TVs smartphone parts, to electric car motor and wind turbine magnets. China yielded 95 percent of the total supply of these elements in 2009, while a mining district just north of Baotou contains 70 percent of the entire world's reserves.
Baotou's roads are wide, deliberately fashioned to accommodate trucks that transport coal to and from the city's pipe-lined streets. This scenery, however, pales in comparison to the wasteland that is Baotou toxic lake.
A 20-minute drive from the city's center, this area is a farm land turned lake due to flooding and river damming. Today it serves as a depot for toxic waste. Two of Baotou's main exports are cerium and neodymium. Cerium is used in commercial applications that involve carbon-arc lighting in motions pictures, while cerium oxide is used to polish touchscreens for smartphones and tablets. Neodymium is a well-known magnet used to make headphones, microphones, and hard drives. It is also used in samarium-neodymium dating, a process used to determine the age relationships of meteorites and rocks.
"It's a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying," Tim Maughan shares about his recent visit to the lake. "The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realization that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West."
Samples of the lake's waste were collected by Unknown Field's Liam Young. The samples were then tested in the UK and the results were distressing, though unfortunately, unsurprising.
"The clay we collected from the toxic lake tested at around three times background radiation," Young reports to Maughan.
"As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we'll want to update them yearly," Maughan says, after coming face-to-face with the consequences of mining.
He now sees his gadgets in a whole new light.
"I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Baotou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon."