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Posted on May 23rd, 2012

Outside the Box – Java and Sulfur

The Kawah Ijen volcano resides in East Java, Indonesia, and towers to nearly 9,000 feet. Inside the volcano is a 200-meter deep lake of sulfuric acid. When the fumes are captured, they turn into a molten liquid and then solidify into pure sulfur. Miners then hack off chunks of the sulfur, braving dangerous gases with barely any protection. These miners then carry their load – upwards of 200 pounds – a few miles downhill, several times a day, to collect their pay – or about $5-10 USD per day. The noxious fumes that roll out of the volcano make it hard to breath and most miners develop very harsh coughs. The smell is pungent, and some describe it as suffocating – causing burning of the lungs. Filter masks are out of the question as it is too expensive to continually replace them.

The Ijen volcano is near the sleepy town of Sempol, more than 6,000 feet above sea level. From the town you take the Pos Paltuding trailhead to get to the crater. Nearly 400 men make this trek every day. The workers generally work for 2 weeks straight; sleeping in makeshift camps near the crater, then go home for 2 weeks to be with their families. The cycle repeats throughout the year.

Sulfur is commonly used in the bleaching of sugar, as well as for the vulcanization of rubber and of course in the manufacture of gunpowder. Another common use of sulfur is in the making of pulp and paper products. The release of sulfuric fumes is quite poisonous, as alluded to above; in 2006 alone, Canada released nearly 60,000 metric tons into the atmosphere. In a study done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, they assessed mortality rates for workers exposed to sulfur dioxide in the pulp and paper industry in 12 countries. Their study included over 57,000 workers in a one year period, and their findings showed nearly 500 lung cancer deaths. Lung cancer mortality increased two-fold in among workers in the highest exposure category.

So it is safe to say that the Javanese workers on the volcanoes are likely putting themselves in great danger by not only working with sulfur and its fumes, but especially so by not using sufficient protection. But even as technology abounds in most extraction industries, no one has developed an efficient and safe way to collect sulfur. Sadly for the workers, in this region, this is considered one of the best ways to make a living.

For many people, manual labor is the only option to make a living. But when working in hazardous industries, with exposure to chemicals and noxious fumes, we typically see great consequences played out on workers’ health and life spans. In our country alone, tragedies in the mining industry have created headlines highlighting the danger that comes with this work. And for this we must ask ourselves, as did Aljazeera, is heavy manual labor disappearing or just becoming invincible?

In their documentary series, “Working Man’s Death,” an episode called ‘Ghosts’ highlights the struggle of the Javanese sulfur industry. It chronicles the daily routines and interviews workers who feel that this is their best option in life. They recount friends that have been lost when they fall on the steep and treacherous path up the volcano; and they downplay the effects of their exposure to the toxic fumes. But overall they are thankful to have this steady, if not difficult, work.

As the world continues to grow in population and industries expand, with it comes the need for more resources. It is not likely that we will see a reduction in dependence on our natural resources, so workers like those from Java will continue to put their health on the line just too eke out a living. In a way it is both a blessing and a curse; the demand keeps them employed, but the job costs them their lives in the long run. With growth we typically learn about our impact on the world around us, so perhaps there will be a move by those industries that indirectly employ these sulfur workers to improve their working conditions. Time will tell. For now, these ‘ghosts’ will continue to emerge from the overpowering, dark fumes to make their living.

The Indonesian island of Java is home to vast deposits of sulfur that is used in everything from fireworks to the bleaching of sugar. Acquiring sulfur crystals is not an easy task, and requires serious commitment, much more than the easy drive displayed by the bridge shown connecting the land mass of Java. This 50-cm panchromatic image has been PhotoEnhanced by Apollo Mapping, and was captured on July 4, 2011 by WorldView-1. (Image Courtesy: DigitalGlobe).


Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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