When It Comes to E-Waste, Be Afraid—Be Very Afraid

Your old computers, phones, TVs and game consoles may be poisoning people and environments in developing countries.

Where does your cell phone go to die? (Photo: Getty/Science & Society Picture Library)

Rachel is a science journalist writing for venues such as The New York Times and Smithsonian.

For every new laptop or next generation iPhone released, there are a slew of redundant old devices that wind up auctioned on eBay or donated to local charities. While some discarded electronics can be reused once or twice, eventually every product reaches the end of its lifespan, becoming electronic waste—or e-waste.

The rapidly growing inventory of outdated electronics fuels a growing e-waste recycling industry. Around 20 to 50 metric tons of this stuff is generated worldwide each year. Most of the developed world’s discarded devices wind up in Africa, China or India, where they are broken down to recover valuable materials. Most of this so-called recycling is largely unregulated and informal, and potentially serves as a major source of environmental contamination and a hazard to human health.

While we would like to think that recycling our old electronics is a socially and environmentally responsible action, the ultimate fate of e-waste and its impacts are not clear.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, a panel of experts discussed what’s being done and what more is needed in order to better understand and regulate e-waste around the world.

Much of Europe’s e-waste winds up in Ghana or in Lagos, a teeming Nigerian port city of nearly eight million people. There, it is collected, dismantled and processed into its most basic components.

About 30,000 workers are involved in this industry through companies registered with the government. Countless more undertake the work unofficially in the city’s mud-caked alleyways. Wires are cut and stripped to remove copper, plastic coatings are burned to reach valuable components inside and the rest is piled up in picked-over heaps.

“They don’t have occupational exposure infrastructure as in the U.S.,” said Sanmi Areola, a toxicologist at the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville. “They don’t have the laws, and where they do exist, they’re not implemented.”

In many cases, he continued, people aren’t even aware of the risks associated with their work.

In Areola’s native Nigeria, e-waste fills informal landfills, which threaten to expose people living near the dumpsites to toxins through water, soil and air contamination.

What’s worse, to reduce the build-up, the piles of electronic rubbish are periodically set on fire, releasing toxic polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants into the air.

And even if mounds of e-waste were never burned, the country’s tropical climate accelerates these chemical agents’ release into the environment. Numerous materials found in electronics are known to cause neurobehavioral, reproductive or teratogenic problems, or to act as carcinogens. “This is adding to an already overstressed community plagued by disease and malnutrition,” Areola said.

He calls for the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., and its equivalents in Europe, to step up efforts to hold electronics manufacturers responsible for overseeing the beginning to the very end of their products’ lives, rather than leave Nigeria and other nations on their own. Reducing the amount of hazardous material found in electronic products would also help, he added.

“Quite often we think about keeping up with the latest technology,” Areola said. “But we don’t always think about what impacts it may have to human health or the environment after it has been discarded.”

Despite what seems like an obvious health risk, scientists are still struggling to understand the possible consequences that e-waste recycling activities may have on humans that come into contact with it, whether directly or indirectly.

To try to better understand this relationship, Aimin Chen, an epidemiologist at the University of Cincinnati, reviewed the current scientific literature surrounding unregulated e-waste recycling. He and his colleagues compared levels of lead, cadmium, chromium, polybrominated diphenyl ethers and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in e-waste recycling communities and unexposed ones.

Not surprisingly, levels of these pollutants proved higher in e-waste recycling centers in both the environment—including in dust, air and water—and in community residents.

In a Chinese e-waste community, for example, lead in the air averaged at 392 nanograms per cubic meter compared to just six nanograms per cubic meter in samples taken from the U.S. and Canada.

Lead, at even the smallest levels, can cause devastating problems for a child, and its toxic effects are sometimes not reversible. Death occurs at levels of just under 1,050 nanograms per cubic meter, but between 10 to 15 other developmental problems occur due to lower level exposure.

Similarly, in samples of children’s blood, kids living in Guiyu—reportedly the largest e-waste recycling site on Earth—had around 10 to 15 milligrams per deciliter of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—some of which are known to be carcinogenic—while in the U.S. that number is five to ten times lower, at around 1.3 mg/dL.

In U.S. children, levels of PAHs peak around age two, when a child is most prone to putting household items into her mouth. In China’s contaminated sites, however, those blood levels actually increase as the child grows.

“Exposure spans from in utero to childhood to adulthood,” Chen said. “They can be exposed from multiple routes, including trans-placental, lactational and environmental, through the air, water, dust and soil.”

Unlike in Africa where much of the e-waste winds up dumped and burned, China and India undertake more thorough—though still rudimentary—recycling efforts to retrieve valuable heavy metals. Like Lagos, health and safety regulations are lacking. “Worker and environmental protection are almost nonexistent,” Chen said. “They’re dismantling these things by hand, heating them on ovens or using acid leaching, but wearing no mask or protective clothing.” 

In Guiyu, people often live literally alongside piles of discarded electronics, or sleep just a story or two above their e-waste cluttered shops. Children play among piles of e-waste or work alongside adults in recycling centers. Pregnant women and young children are especially at risk of possible adverse health effects from contamination, since fetal development and early childhood are especially vulnerable stages.

In a study currently underway, Chen and his colleagues followed 920 pregnant women in e-waste recycling and non-recycling sites. From preliminary results, babies born to women living in recycling sites weigh around 50 grams less than those in control sites, and their body mass index measures at 12.1 versus 12.9 in babies born in non-exposed communities. “This picture suggests that human development can possibly be linked to electronic waste recycling,” Chen commented of these initial results.

While Chen and his group have not yet directly proven a link between e-waste community living and long-term problems in people or children living there, other human epidemiologic findings and animal literature raise significant concerns about this relatively new path of potential contamination.

The researchers advise that places where high amounts of e-waste recycling takes place, such as Guiyu, should prioritize preventing unnecessary exposure e-waste, especially for children and pregnant women.

These problems don’t belong solely to Nigeria or China. Atmospheric pollution, for example, does not respect international boundaries. “The thing to remember is that we’re living on a spaceship,” said Bruce Fowler, a toxicologist and senior fellow at the consulting firm ICF International. “This stuff comes back to us in the air and in food.”

Of the 80,000 chemicals currently in use, scientists have studied the toxicological effects of just a handful, he said.

“What we must do is try to remain calm and think this through,” Fowler continued. “At the end of the day it’s knowledge of how risky these chemicals are that will determine the extent of putting regulations in place.”

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