Toxic Electronic Waste Grows by 40 Million Tonnes a Year — Poisons Kids in Africa

A worker cooks computer motherboards over solder to remove chips and valuable metals at a makeshift e-waste workshop.

‘Public largely unaware of the e-waste impacts on human health and environment’

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 1, 2011 (IPS)

Mountains of hazardous waste grow by about 40 million tons every year. This waste, mostly from Europe and North America, is burned in developing countries like Ghana in a hazardous effort to recover valuable metals.

A children’s school in Accra, Ghana’s capital, was recently found to be contaminated by lead, cadmium and other health-threatening pollutants at levels over 50 times higher than risk-free levels. The school is located directly beside an informal electronic waste salvage site.

“Poor people in Africa cannot afford to process Europe’s or America’s electronic wastes,” said Ghanaian researcher Atiemo Sampson.

“Those wastes are poisoning our children,” Sampson told IPS from Accra.

Ghana does not regulate the importation and management of electronic waste, or e-waste. The government hopes to have rules in place next year, he said.

Sampson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Ghana, was involved in testing the school and other areas in Accra near the Agbogbloshie scrap metal site, where more than 100 people break apart and burn electronic trash by hand to obtain valuable metals like copper.

Schoolchildren as young as six years old work around bonfires of circuitry, plastic and other leftover high-tech trash, he said.

A nearby produce market, a church headquarters and a soccer field were similarly polluted, to varying degrees. The soil around the school site had measurements for lead 12 times higher than the levels at which intervention is required. Lead is acutely toxic to children and can permanently damage their growing brains and nervous systems, even at very low levels of exposure.

“We don’t know what the immediate health impacts are. We are hoping to test the children’s blood for contaminants but we have not secured the necessary funding,” Sampson said.

International shipments of electronic trash are outlawed by the Basel Convention. However, European and North American e-waste is often shipped as “electronics for reuse” or hidden with legitimate cargo.

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