The Toxic Threat of E-waste: The Consequences of Improper Electronic Disposal on Health
It is now widely accepted that the ever-growing volume of e-waste generated each year is a global problem that must be resolved. Focus on e-waste has largely sat on its environmental impact and what this means for our planet. But what harm does e-waste do to human beings, and how are millions being affected by the rising tide of electronics in landfills around the world?
These are questions that we will be addressing in this article to draw attention to the biological problems arising because of e-waste.
At Techbuyer we believe in a sustainable future for the IT industry and the planet, this means that the problem of e-waste and the effects this has on our global community is a core concern of our business. To us, sustainability is not restricted to improving the environment, but encompasses all issues that endanger human health and basic rights.
Techbuyer signed up to support and work towards the UN Global Goals. These goals, also known as Sustainable Development Goals, are designed to bring about changes in practices, habits and attitudes to create a sustainable future for the planet. Find out more about Techbuyer’s pledge and efforts towards these goals here.
Illegal Dumping of E-waste
Before we discuss the health implications caused by e-waste and the communities at risk of serious illness, we must first assess what actually becomes of the e-waste that we generate.
In 2015, it was predicted that over 90% of e-waste was being illegally dumped or traded, with the majority being shipped to Third-World countries. Developing countries, as a result, are home to the largest electronic dumping sites in the world. Whilst extensive efforts are being made by governments globally to reduce the illegal dumping of e-waste, it is still a large problem that we are facing today.
Agbogbloshie is a district of Ghana’s capital, Accra. It is also home to the largest e-waste dump in the world, which receives the majority of the 150,000 tonnes of e-waste imported by Ghana every year. This site is not a rural, removed area; it is at the heart of Ghana’s capital city where millions of people live. And Agbogbloshie is just one of hundreds of large electronic dumping grounds found at the heart of communities in developing countries, including India, Pakistan, Chile and The Philippines.
Within the communities surrounding the locations of e-waste landfills, informal and often illegal scavenging for valuable materials is an essential part of the local economy.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), in their recent article “Children and digital dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child health,” states that “millions of young children and adolescents, as well as women of childbearing age, work in the growing e-waste dumps of Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in some developed economies of Europe and elsewhere, extracting precious metals such as gold from computer chips and copper from cables by burning the devices or using toxic chemical baths.” (pg. 8)
Health Impacts of E-waste
Studies conducted by the WHO have highlighted the impact of e-waste on bodily health, particularly pregnant women and children. Due to the elevated level of toxic chemicals and materials such as lead, lithium and arsenic found in technology, those who come into regular contact with e-waste – especially during informal extraction processes designed to remove valuable materials from devices – are at risk of developing significant health conditions.
Within their study, the WHO demonstrated that pregnant women who live near electronic dumps were at risk of miscarrying their child due to the release of toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil. For new mothers, these toxins could be passed onto the child through breast milk and transplacental exposure, causing significant health risks for unborn and newborn babies.
Furthermore, those children that live near e-waste landfill sites are also at risk. They can experience the development of chronic diseases, such as certain forms of cancer, as well as DNA damage, a change in lung function and respiratory issues to name but a few. E-waste also poses a physical threat to children who live near and work in these dumping sites. Sharp edges and jagged metal are risks to all within the area, particularly as little to no protective clothing or equipment is issued.
The work being carried out in these electronic landfill sites is part of what is referred to as the “informal e-waste recycling industry” and, as such, does not adhere to the safe and responsible measures of extracting materials. In fact, those that work in, and live near, these sites are exposed to toxic chemicals within the air, soil and water surrounding the area, creating drastic health conditions, as summarised by the WHO in the quote below.
The “informal processing of e-waste through open burning, heating and acid leaching (using cyanide salt, nitric acid or mercury) to extract precious metals exposes [the community] to a range of hazardous compounds, including heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, as well as other toxic by-products of plastic and metal processing.” (pg. xi)
The illegal dumping of e-waste within developing countries is creating a dangerous living and working environment for those within the local community, one in which their health and wellbeing are at risk from birth.
Whilst global governments are imposing legislation to reduce the impact of e-waste, such as the Right to Repair movement in the USA, there is much we can do on an organisational and individual level to aid the situation and prevent our own devices from ending up in these electronic landfill sites.
The Right to Repair movement is an initiative that we fully support. This legislation would offer greater freedom to consumers and businesses alike to repair technology without compromising their warranty. Not only will this keep technology in use for longer, as the price of repair becomes more manageable, but also prevent many broken or damaged devices from ending up in landfill.
What We Can Do
Responsibly caring for and disposing of your technology is necessary to prevent your electronics from ending up in one of these sites where they could become a hazard to the local community.
Maintaining technology through repairs and component upgrades allows you to extend the lifespan of your electronics and keep them in use for longer. This means that you will need to refresh your technology less often and prevents useful devices from ending up in landfill sites.
When a device reaches the end of its lifespan, it is essential to responsibly dispose of IT. In this sense, selling your used IT to a refurbishment specialist is the most sustainable way to dispose of the device. A refurbishment specialist is more likely to be able to reuse the entire device, rather than extracting and recycling certain materials. If the device cannot be refurbished for reuse, it will then be responsibly recycled to ensure that your technology does not add to the growing problem of e-waste we are experiencing globally.
However, recycling technology should not be your first response to IT disposal. Recycling is unfortunately incapable of extracting all valuable and useful resources from a device in its current state. Refurbishment, repair and reuse, in comparison, can utilise a much larger percentage (often up to 100%) of the device, extending the lifespan of the technology and preventing IT from ending up in e-waste landfill sites.
On an organisational level, refreshing technology can result in massive quantities of hardware heading to landfill. This is not only a sustainability problem, but also a security issue as sensitive data may be recoverable on this equipment. Using an IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) service ensures that your business’s used technology is data sanitised and responsibly refurbished or disposed of to reduce the impact of your technology on the environment, as well as the health of our global community.
At Techbuyer we believe that with just a few significant changes in our attitudes to how redundant equipment is handled can make all the difference. On an individual scale, repairing your devices, being responsible with your IT waste and making sensible decisions with technology can go a long way to reducing the acceleration in size of these electronic dump sites.
For organisations and businesses, these practices become even more important. Using an ITAD service to responsibly dispose of your used IT hardware, considering refurbished technology where possible and maintaining your IT system through repairs and component level upgrades is essential to reducing the impact that your technology has on the environment and these communities.
A Circular IT Economy
Techbuyer supports the production of a circular IT economy, designed to prevent and reduce the quantity of e-waste building-up in developing countries. Where all technology is used, refurbished, resold and eventually recycled. This would result in a drastic reduction in the production of e-waste, diminishing the risk of dumping sites and allowing the local communities of developing countries to live free of the effects of toxic, discarded electronics.
This situation is becoming more plausible as more research is being conducted. The CEDaCI project, for instance, is a multi-million-pound, Interreg funded program dedicated to producing a circular data centre economy. Projects such as CEDaCI are leading the way in bringing an end to the mountain of e-waste that we produce globally every year by creating a more sustainable technology sector.
Techbuyer is a global supplier of sustainable IT solutions. Our services are uniquely designed to offer sustainable options for the procurement, maintenance and disposal of IT hardware and consumer technology. Our business centres around the goal of creating a sustainable IT and data centre industry to reduce the impact of e-waste and diminish the negative impacts of technology on our global community.