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How our old computers, TVs and other electronics are making children sick

A man from Ghana burns electronic waste to reveal the metals at the Agbogbloshie electronic waste site in Accra, Ghana. (Credit: Christian Thompson)

Wealthy nations ship millions of tonnes of their used electronic devices to low-middle income countries to be ‘recycled’. On these recipient sites children wade through hazardous e-waste which causes adverse long term effects to their health as found in a new report.

Electronic waste (e-waste) is increasing at three times the pace of the world population, impacting badly on the health of those wading through electronic dump sites, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) landmark report – Children and Digital Dumpsites – released on Tuesday.

Led by Marie-Noël Bruné Drisse, a children’s health expert of the WHO, the report found that 18 million children, some as young as 5 years of age, are actively involved in the informal e-waste sector, and are being exposed to toxic e-waste that is endangering their lives.

In 2013, the WHO launched its e-waste and child health initiative, which led to a series of evidence gathering missions to bring together knowledge and awareness on the detrimental health impacts.

“Recycling is quite expensive,” Drisse told Geneva Solutions. “Because it is expensive, [rich countries] circumvent the domestic recycling regulations, and it seems to be cheaper to do this than to recycle the waste themselves.”

This is triggering a crisis of e-waste health risks to millions of children globally, mostly in low and middle income countries that are recipients to the hazardous material. In east and south-east Asia alone the volume of the electronic waste increased by 63 per cent between 2010 and 2015, according to the report.

As the world throws out their old devices, each year about 250,000 tonnes of the 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste is discarded in Agbogbloshie, located in the buzzing commercial district on the Korle Lagoon of the Odaw River, in the centre of Ghana’s capital city Accra.

Nicknamed Sodom and Gomorrah, Agbogbloshie is one of the world’s most prolific destinations for electronic scrap materials as hundreds and thousands of tonnes of e-waste is dumped at the site by mostly wealthy nations.

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E-waste sorted and recycled material ready to be sold in Agbogbloshie. Credit: Pokuaa
In the 2020 Global E-waste Monitor report, only 17.4 per cent of the 50 million figure was officially documented as formally collected and recycled.

According to the WHO, e-waste refers to any electronic equipment and components which become waste, including medical devices and toys.

The majority of e-waste is then recycled by informal waste sector workers, including children and pregnant women, exposing these populations to toxic materials including brominated flame retardants, lead, mercury and dioxins.

Children at greater harm. “As many as 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk,” the WHO said in a press statement on Tuesday.

“Meanwhile more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as 5 years of age, are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, of which waste processing is a sub-sector.”

Young children are often used in the informal recycling sector as “they have small hands, which are useful for extracting the materials,” said Drisse.

Children working in the dump sites are more vulnerable than adults as their organs are less developed, and the toxins could “impair neurological and behavioural development” as well as other negative birth outcomes connected to the lung and respiratory function and immune system damage, said the WHO.

Beyond health, there are environmental consequences including the pollution of air, water and soil, critical for agricultural means.

The ‘most toxic’ dumpsite in the world. Arriving at the port of Tema, about 20 miles east of Agbogbloshie, thousands of tonnes of used electronic materials are delivered by high income nations such as those in the European Union and North America, often burdening the local waste management infrastructure.

Up to 8,000 workers wade through the discarded materials for recycling at temperatures of about 35°C without masks or personal protective equipment.

Ghana makes an estimated $105 to $268 million annually from materials sourced from e-waste and as many as 200,000 people benefit from e-waste recycling activities, according to Drisse.

“How can we ask a family who depend on informal recycling as their source of income to stop this activity?” asks Dr Julius Fobil, head of the School of Public Health at the University of Ghana, who has been researching the impact of informal e-waste recycling on health for years.

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Recycled materials in Agbogbloshie next to one of the residents’ home. Credit: Pokuaa
Fobil said until alternatives jobs are offered and appropriate measures are implemented, e-waste will remain a complex issue.

“Their respiratory health is impacted, they have breathing problems, back problems and sores on their skins which could lead to long-term ailments,” he explained.

Workers source the materials needed, such as copper, by burning the electronic materials. As a result, “naked fires at low temperatures are widespread, which is extremely dangerous, particularly for children as they can get burnt.”

Also, the smoke “emanating from burning goes into the lungs of those in surrounding areas and causes environmental and air pollution, significantly impacting the air quality,” particularly for the 80,000 people living on-site and adjacent to the site.

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E-waste sorted into and boxes bags as smoke emanates from low-heat burning. Credit: Pokuaa

A vibrant economy surrounds Agbogbloshie, which is home to one of Accra’s largest food markets. Livestock also graze on the waste materials, enabling toxins to enter the food chains.

The highest ever reported levels of brominated dioxin and second- highest level of chlorinated dioxins were found in eggs in Agbogbloshie, Drisse explained.

Adult chicken eggs gathered around the area have 220 times more toxins than the safety limits prescribed and, if ingested, could cause cancer, reproductive problems and interfere with hormones. With all these health warnings the practice still remains extremely difficult to curb.

Why international conventions and policies are not working. Attempting to curb the practice, international treaties like the Basel Convention (1992) and Bamako Convention (1998) came into force to reduce and prevent the export of hazardous waste, including radioactive materials to low-middle income countries. However, this waste still ends up in places like Agbogbloshie.

Although both Drisse and Fobil believe these conventions are “really important” to discourage the shipment of hazardous waste, they both note their limitations.

“These international conventions remain at the global level making it difficult to implement locally. They are signed by governments at a high level and there is a long lag between when the decision at the global level is made and implemented locally,” said Fobil.

“In addition, when adopted at an international level they can become ineffective locally because they do not apply as the policies remain inflexible,” he added.

As part of the e-waste and child initiative a group of 10 UN agencies and international organisations have come together to increase collaboration and provide more effective support to countries to address the e-waste and adapt international policies to local contexts to ensure more successful waste management systems.

Drisse also explained that organisations such as Pure Earth and its partners are thinking of locally adapted interventions to recycle and dismantle these materials without harming people’s health – such as getting machines to strip the wires to retrieve the copper.

As part of the ongoing efforts to offer training in safer recycling practice, a football pitch for entertainment and clinic have been located near-by, bringing together informal and formal groups on how to appropriately manage e-waste.

“The clinic is providing basic health care for e-waste workers and other residents in the area. It is also used as an onsite research centre for collecting biological samples needed to disseminate information about the health impacts of improper waste management,” Fobil explained.

Despite all these interventions, people's appetite for electronics keeps growing, and this has detrimental and long-term effects on people like those living in Agbogbloshie.