As the world continues to grow increasingly dependent on the world of IT and computers, the volume of electronic waste is rising, and with it comes a new threat – risk of exposure to lead, cadmium, chromium and other hazardous materials that can be toxic to human health and the environment.
In South Africa alone, electronic waste, or e-waste, makes up just 5% to 8% of municipal solid waste but is growing at a rate three times faster than any other form, according to the South African e-Waste Alliance (Saewa). Most of the e-waste ends up in landfills or is exported to countries that have bigger capacities for recycling. A relatively small fraction, 10% to 15%, is recycled locally, says Keith Anderson, chair of the e-Waste Association of South Africa (Ewasa).
The accumulation of toxins from electronic waste into land and air poses significant health risks to recycling workers and to people living in neighbouring areas.
Developing a national e-waste management plan is important for mediating the risks associated with the handling of e-waste, Anderson says. South Africa, however, has no legislation that directly deals with electronic waste management, though some environmental and waste management laws have a bearing on what happens to e-waste.
Organisations like Ewasa and the Information Technology Association Producer Environmental Group, which represents various e-waste manufacturers like Dell and HP, are now working to put forward a national e-waste management strategy before government and have plans to present it within the year.
On its own, electronic waste is not hazardous – an old microwave or laptop, for instance, can be kept in storage without posing any immediate threat to human health. Risks arise when electronic waste is left exposed to the elements or when it is not recycled properly, such as through the incineration of trash.
Research has shown that in these instances toxins within the waste seep into soil or contaminate the air or water as fine particles and can eventually make their way into the human body.
Accumulating exposure to these toxicants puts people at risk for a range of health complications, including cancers, developmental defects and damage to the kidneys, lungs, brain and nervous system. Lead poisoning, in particular, can cause damage to the nervous and reproductive system and, in some cases, can lead to death, the World Health Organisation reports.
“Lead is number one probably,” says Dr Aimin Chen, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, who studies the effects of environmental toxicants on women and children. “If you look at a single 27-inch TV, a Cathode Ray Tube TV, it would have maybe 2kg of lead inside – that’s a lot of lead.” In addition to lead, cadmium, nickel, chromium, and mercury are other metals to pay attention to, he says.
Studies have shown that nonmetals like plastics and flame-retardants, which are core components of most e-waste, can also cause health problems when not handled properly. When burned, they release toxins that can linger in the environment for long periods of time.
Chen and fellow researchers found that, among pregnant women in China, those residing near e-waste recycling sites had nearly twice the amount of hazardous metals in their body, including lead, cadmium, and chromium, when compared to women in nonrecycling areas. Their findings, published in 2012 in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, revealed that these women had more stillbirths and children born with low birth weight. These adverse birth outcomes were “related to a greater risk of nervous, respiratory, and digestive system impairments” in children.
Regardless of whether the women in the study participated in e-waste recycling activities, which were often haphazard and done without proper safety equipment or tools, they still had a high content of heavy metals compared to women in the control site. This finding reveals that proximity matters when it comes to levels of exposure. “If you live even within one or two kilometres, those toxicants can still be going into the air or dust or soil or even water. These are all possible ways that contamination can happen,” Chen says.
He warns that children and fetuses are especially vulnerable to metal toxicants and recommends that, along with encouraging recycling workers to use protective gear and improving safety standards in recycling facilities, pregnant women and children be removed from the industrial recycling field altogether.
E-waste industry in South Africa
While there are risks with handling e-waste, its existence is not presumed to be all bad. In fact, many developing countries see e-waste as an “income generating opportunity”, according to the “The Global Impact of e-Waste: Addressing the Challenge”, a report by the International Labour Office. In South Africa, e-waste has created a new opening in the recycling sector, consisting of small-scale independent operators, dismantlers, refurbishers, distributors, and large-scale recyclers such as Desco, among others, Anderson says.
Susanne Karcher, co-ordinator of the Saewa, says these people fall into one of two groups: informal collectors, mostly made up of poor, small-scale, recyclers who “cherry-pick” valuables like copper and printed circuit boards by smashing, burning or dismantling e-waste, and formal recyclers, a smaller group made up of larger scale recyclers who usually work through government or business contracts.
Most informal recyclers operate illegally, Karcher, says, in part because the process required to become legal is costly. “There is basically just a handful of recyclers in South Africa who are legally compliant,” she says.
The health impacts of e-waste are mainly associated with the informal recycling sector, says Mpinane Flory Senekane, a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg’s department of environmental health. A 2008 Ewasa report, “e-Waste Assessment South Africa”, states that informal e-waste recycling provides critical income for many but also has a number of negative social and environmental effects. Among them are ongoing exposures to hazardous substances and contributions to the levels of crime through the theft of recycling bins, copper cables and consumer electronics.
Many of the problems associated with e-waste are linked to limited awareness among citizens, policymakers, and informal collectors. Knowledge about e-waste is low throughout the world, and scholars and industry officials agree that raising awareness through education is crucial for reducing exposure to hazardous waste and improving recycling standards.
“A lot of these waste pickers who work in the landfill sites, who scavenge for waste, they’re exposing themselves to a lot of toxic elements, like when they burn their copper cables to extract the copper from them,” Anderson says. “All those toxic fumes which they inhale and get into the atmosphere are all problematic, but this can all be dealt with through education and by bringing education into the mainstream and by telling workers about protective equipment.”
Joan Koka is a master’s student from the University of Missouri, Columbia. She is currently an intern with the Mail & Guardian’s health desk, Bhekisisa.