Exploring Idaho’s mine sites can be hazardous: what you need to know to stay safe

July 18, 2023
Kelly Berg, Division of Public Health

Historical mine sites and ghost towns provide a unique recreational opportunity to explore a fascinating part of Idaho’s heritage. The buildings and structures are historical artifacts, and many are privately owned. Awareness of potential health and safety risks at these sites will keep your family safe during your visit.

Lead and other metals at historical mines

Idaho has about 9,000 mining-related contaminated sites. Historical mining areas can have high levels of lead and other metals in waste rock, tailing piles, soil, sediment, water, and historical buildings. Contaminated soil and dust can be unknowingly tracked into vehicles or homes after recreating in areas with mining history. Lead from soil can enter the body by breathing contaminated dust or when hands or other objects covered with dust are put into the mouth.  
Health effects of lead

Exposure to lead can be harmful to everyone but is most dangerous to children and pregnant women. Lead in the body can seriously harm a child’s health and cause effects such as:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Slowed growth and development
  • Learning and behavior problems
  • Anemia and kidney damage
  • Increased blood pressure, especially in middle-aged or older people

Protect yourself and others from lead and other metals

  • Keep hands clean by washing them with soap and potable water or wipes before eating or drinking. Discard any food if it is dropped onto the ground.
  • Do not allow children to dig or play in the dirt (e.g., bare soil, muddy areas, mine waste piles).  
  • Wash children’s toys with potable water after playing outside.
  • Avoid interaction between children and dirty, dusty pets.
  • When riding ATVs, motorcycles, and bikes off-road go slowly, and do not create dust. Avoid inhaling dust by wearing a mask or face covering.  
  • Do not disturb mine waste piles and soil throughout the area.
  • Do not camp or recreate on historic mining areas, structures, or waste piles. Take off shoes before entering a camper or tent.  
  • Before returning home, dust or wash all used items. If you are unable to clean items before returning home, store them in a designated area away from clean items.  All clothes should be washed separately from other laundry. 
  • Consider getting a blood lead test if you or your family have been recreating in a mine site known to contain lead. Talk to you doctor. 

Other hazards to consider 

Every year dozens of people are injured or killed in accidents at historic mine sites. Hazards around an abandoned mine are not always obvious. Stay out of active or closed mine sites and consider these hazards:

  • Lack of oxygen or the presence of deadly gases can be present in abandoned mines. You could come across pockets of methane, carbon monoxide, or other gases that displace oxygen and can cause muscles to stop responding normally, impair thinking, or cause unconsciousness or death.  
  • Open shafts or vertical mine openings can extend hundreds of feet to the lowest level of a mine. The open shafts can be hidden by mine debris, dirt, rock, or water.  
  • Open shafts of horizontal mine openings can extend for miles in which there is no light, making it easy to become lost or disoriented. Support beams and framework can be decayed or gone, making it easy for mining tunnels to collapse.  
  • Old explosives or chemicals can be found in mines and become unstable over time. They can explode spontaneously.  
  • Historical buildings are not stable and often have hazards such as lead-based paint, broken frames, unforeseen animal dangers, and hazardous chemicals.


Additional Resources:

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Environmental Health: Lead | Idaho Department of Health and Welfare

Idaho Department of Environmental Quality: Mining in Idaho | Idaho Department of Environmental Quality

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mines | US Forest Service (usda.gov)

U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety Administration: Stay Out - Stay Alive | Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)

Idaho Geological Survey: Idaho Geological Survey - Inactive & Abandoned Mines (idahogeology.org)

Kelly Berg is an Environmental Health Program Specialist for the Department of Health and Welfare.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening Idahoans' health, safety, and independence. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.

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