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Electronic Waste: Medical and Health Issues

  • Synopsis: Published: 2015-05-21 (Revised/Updated 2017-05-01) - Information regarding the growing health dangers of electronic waste. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Thomas C. Weiss at Disabled World.
Electronic Waste (E-waste)

Electronic waste or e-waste is defined as discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling or disposal are also described as e-waste. Informal processing of electronic waste in developing countries may cause serious health and pollution problems, as these countries have limited regulatory oversight of e-waste processing.

Main Document

Quote: "Developing countries with quickly growing economies handle e-waste from developed countries and from their own internal consumers."

The use of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is rising and the amount of electrical and electronic waste or, 'e-waste,' produced every day is growing at an incredible rate around the world today.

Recycling of valuable elements contained in e-waste such as gold or copper has become a source of income, largely in the informal sector of emerging or developing industrialized countries. Primitive recycling techniques; however, such as burning for retaining the inherent copper expose child and adult workers as well as their family members to a number of hazardous substances. E-waste-connected health risks might result from direct contact with harmful materials such as:

  • Lead
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Brominated flame retardants
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

due to inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in water, soil and food. Along with its hazardous components being processed, e-waste may give rise to several toxic by-products likely to affect human health. In addition, recycling activities such as the dismantling of electrical equipment may potentially present an increased risk of injury.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks that might result from e-waste exposure and need more specific protection. While they are still growing, children's intake of water, air and food in proportion to their weight is significantly increased when compared with adults. The risk of hazardous chemical absorption is increased for children as well. In addition, children's bodies functional systems such as the:

  • Immune system
  • Digestive system
  • Reproductive system
  • Central nervous system

These systems are still developing and exposure to toxic substances, by hampering further development, might cause damage that is irreversible. A number of children are exposed to e-waste derived in their daily lives due to unsafe recycling activities that are often times conducted at their own homes, either by family members, or by the children themselves. Children may be exposed through dump sites near their homes, play areas, or schools.

Over the past few years, different international calls for action have highlighted the need of strategic interventions in the field of e-waste. The calls include the Libreville Declaration emanating from the first Inter-Ministerial Conference on Health and Environment in Africa of 2008, the Strategic Approach to Integrated Chemical Management's expanded Global Plan of Action issued at the International Conference on Chemical Management ICCM3 of 2012, and the Busan Pledge for Action on Children's Environmental Health of 2009. There are several international initiatives that are addressing global e-waste management and trade concerns, as well as issues with environmental pollution due to e-waste.

E-waste is a global issue, particularly since a number of developing countries ship their discarded electronic equipment to less developed countries. In these countries, the e-waste is dismantled and then burned, producing toxic emissions which are harmful to waste site workers and communities that are nearby. An international population study, led by the University of Cincinnati (UC), examined the human developmental effects of environmental exposure to the complex metal mixture found in e-waste.

UC epidemiologist Aimin Chen, M.D., Ph.D. said research on the effects of complex metal and organic pollutant mixtures in e-waste is greatly needed to avoid unnecessary health risks to vulnerable populations from exposure to soil, toxic air and water. Billions of pounds of electronic waste are destined to end up in landfills and incinerators in the next few years. Items such as cell phones, computers and other electronics contain metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead, as well as brominated flame retardants that are in the plastics used in the electronics. Studies have repeatedly revealed that these metals and chemicals are toxic to the environment and human health. Some states have started to classify computer monitors as hazardous waste and in some instances they are banned from landfills.

Researchers at UC believe pregnant women and more specifically - their growing fetuses and young children living in developing countries where informal and primitive e-waste recycling takes place are at increased risk for neurotoxicity. Dr. Chen stated, "Because the brain is in a state of rapid development, the blood-brain barrier in infants and young children is not as effective as in adults, and neurotoxic substances - like heavy metals - can cause developmental damage." Dr. Chen also says universal restrictions on disposal of e-waste do not exist. In America, there are no legally enforceable federal policies to regulate e-waste, merely a patchwork of legislation in around half of the states. The European Union has federal legislation restricting e-waste disposal and putting a lot of this responsibility on the manufacturers of electronic devices.

"In countries where primitive recycling processes exist, human health - especially children's health - should drive regulation and management of recycling activities. Restricting the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing electronic devices would help prevent exposures. More effective environmental regulations in e-waste management are also critically needed," according to Dr. Chen. Dr. Shuk-mei Ho added, "Exposure to this type of metal mixture and persistent organic pollutants is truly unprecedented." Dr. Ho is a Professor and Jacob G. Schmidlapp Chair of UC's Environmental Health Department. Dr. Ho also stated, "We need a better understanding of the human health effects of mixture exposure in order to develop effective measures to protect the people who are most at risk." Informal recycling markets in countries to include:

  • India
  • China
  • Vietnam
  • Pakistan
  • The Philippines

handle anywhere from 50%-80% of the e-waste, often burning, shredding and dismantling the products in backyards. Emissions from these recycling practices are damaging the environment and human health. Developing countries with quickly growing economies handle e-waste from developed countries and from their own internal consumers. At this time, an estimated 70% of e-waste handled in India is from other countries, yet the UNEP estimates that between the years of 2007-2020, domestic television e-waste will double. Computer e-waste is expected to increase five-fold, while cell phones will increase eighteen times.

The informal sector's recycling practices magnify the health risks people face. For example; primary and secondary exposure to toxic metals such as lead results largely from open-air burning used to retrieve valuable components such as gold. Combustion from burning e-waste creates fine particulate matter, something that is linked to cardiovascular and pulmonary disease.

Even though the health implications of e-waste are hard to isolate because of informal working conditions, poverty and poor sanitation, a number of studies in Guiyu - a city in southeastern China, offer insight. Guiyu is known as the biggest e-waste recycling site on Earth and the city's residents exhibit substantial neurological, digestive, bone and respiratory issues. For example; 80% of Guiyu's children experience respiratory ailments and are particularly at risk of lead poisoning.

Facts: Hazardous e-Waste Materials

  • Americium: The radioactive source in smoke alarms. It is known to be carcinogenic.
  • Beryllium oxide: Filler in some thermal interface materials such as thermal grease used on heat-sinks for CPUs and power transistors, magnetrons, X-ray-transparent ceramic windows, heat transfer fins in vacuum tubes, and gas lasers.
  • BFRs: Used as flame retardants in plastics in most electronics. Includes PBBs, PBDE, DecaBDE, OctaBDE, PentaBDE. Health effects include impaired development of the nervous system, thyroid problems, liver problems.
  • Cadmium: Found in light-sensitive resistors, corrosion-resistant alloys for marine and aviation environments, and nickel-cadmium batteries. The most common form of cadmium is found in Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries. The sale of Nickel-Cadmium batteries has been banned in the European Union except for medical use. The inhalation of cadmium can cause severe damage to the lungs and is also known to cause kidney damage. Cadmium is also associated with deficits in cognition, learning, behavior, and neuromotor skills in children.
  • Hexavalent chromium: A known carcinogen after occupational inhalation exposure.
  • Lead: Solder, CRT monitor glass, lead-acid batteries, some formulations of PVC. A typical 15-inch cathode ray tube may contain 1.5 pounds of lead, but other CRTs have been estimated as having up to 8 pounds of lead. Adverse effects of lead exposure include impaired cognitive function, behavioral disturbances, attention deficits, hyperactivity, conduct problems and lower IQ.
  • Mercury: Found in fluorescent tubes (numerous applications), tilt switches (mechanical doorbells, thermostats), and flat screen monitors. Health effects include sensory impairment, dermatitis, memory loss, and muscle weakness. Exposure in-utero causes fetal deficits in motor function, attention and verbal domains. Environmental effects in animals include death, reduced fertility, and slower growth and development.
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA): Found in Non-stick cookware (PTFE), used as an anti-static additive in industrial applications, and found in electronics. Studies have found increased maternal PFOA levels to be associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) and stillbirth. Increased maternal levels of PFOA are also associated with decreases in mean gestational age (preterm birth), mean birth weight (low birth weight), mean birth length (small for gestational age), and mean APGAR score.
  • Sulphur: Found in lead-acid batteries. Health effects include liver damage, kidney damage, heart damage, eye and throat irritation. When released into the environment, it can create sulphuric acid.

Statistics: E-waste

  • An estimated 50 million tons of E-waste are produced each year. The USA discards 30 million computers each year and 100 million phones are disposed of in Europe each year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 15 - 20% of e-waste is recycled, the rest of these electronics go directly into landfills and incinerators.
  • E-waste represents 2% of America's trash in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste.
  • For every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be recovered.

Related Information:

  1. Cancer Causing Agents: List of Currently Known Human Carcinogens - Ian Langtree - (2014-10-11)
  2. Suspected Cancer Carcinogens - Report Outlines Knowledge Gaps - American Cancer Society - (2010-07-15)

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