Why Mica is at Risk
Mica is a group of silicate crystal minerals that form in distinct layers, making individual sheet silicates that are light, soft, flexible, and heat resistant. There are two types of mica that are mined: sheet mica and scrap and flake mica.
In the steel industry, sheet mica is often used as a high-performance insulator thanks to its ability to reduce cracks in the steel and its aesthetic glimmer or shine. In recent years, mica has gained prominence as an environmentally friendly material that can be used in plastics, rubber, cars, electronics, and even cosmetics.
As a very small mined mineral, mica is at high risk for forced labor in countries like India and Madagascar, where children are forced to go below ground or into hazardous, abandoned mines and forests to extract it. The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported in 2016 that 70 percent of India’s mica production was estimated to come from such hazardous mines. The investigation by the news agency also found that many Indian children had died while working in these conditions. The same statistics were discovered in Madagascar, a country that was recently identified by the U.S. Department of Labor as a place where illegal child labor also occurs in the mica mining industry. A majority of mica from this part of East Africa flows into China to be processed and exported to the United States.
According to the 2020 U.S. Geological Survey, India and Madagascar are responsible for most of the world’s sheet mica (no longer mined in the U.S.), while states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and South Dakota produce natural scrap and flake mica. In fact, the U.S. was the second-largest global producer of this type of mica as of 2019, behind China. Canada and Finland are also major exporters. From 2015 to 2018, it was estimated the U.S. received 45 percent of its scrap and flake mica imports from Canada.
With these child labor issues newly exposed in poor sheet mica mining communities around the globe, the mineral is gaining traction as a high-risk material. Not only is the building product industry now alert to this supply chain problem, but other industries are starting to notice too.