Millions of Children Poisoned by Flood of Toxic E-Waste

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 9, 2021 (ENS) – Effective, binding action is urgently required to protect the millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is jeopardized by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices finds a ground-breaking report from the World Health Organization, “Children and Digital Dumpsites.

“With mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent international forum described as a mounting “tsunami of e-waste,” putting lives and health at risk,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“In the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution, we need to rally to protect our most valuable resource – the health of our children – from the growing threat of e-waste,” Dr. Tedros said.

Nearly 13 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.

A child picks over the giant waste pile at the dump site Agbogbloshie in the city of Accra, Ghana, Feb. 28, 2014 (Photo courtesy Fairphone)

Meanwhile, more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five, are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, and waste processing is a sub-sector of that.

Children can be placed by parents or caregivers in e-waste recycling work sites. Other children live, go to school and play near e-waste recycling centers where high levels of toxic chemicals, mostly lead and mercury, can damage their brains.

Children exposed to e-waste are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals they contain. They absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to metabolize or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies than adults.

Workers, aiming to recover valuable materials such as copper and gold, are at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances, including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs.

Agbogbloshie is a nickname for a commercial district on the Korle Lagoon of the Odaw River, near the center of Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Roughly 40,000 Ghanaians inhabit the area, most of whom are migrants from rural areas.

The Seattle-based nonprofit Basel Action Network has called Agbogbloshie a “digital dumping ground,” where it alleges millions of tons of e-waste are processed each year.

“A child who eats just one chicken egg from Agbogbloshie, a waste site in Ghana, will absorb 220 times the European Food Safety Authority daily limit for intake of chlorinated dioxins,” said Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, the lead WHO author on the report.

“Improper e-waste management is the cause. This is a rising issue that many countries do not recognize yet as a health problem. If they do not act now, its impacts will have a devastating health effect on children and lay a heavy burden on the health sector in the years to come,” she said.

Concern remains over methods of waste processing, especially burning, which emits toxic chemicals into the air, land and water. For an expectant mother, exposure to toxic e-waste can affect the health and development of her unborn child for the rest of its life.

Potential adverse health effects include negative birth outcomes, such as stillbirth and premature births, as well as low birth weight and length. Exposure to lead from e-waste recycling activities has been associated with reduced neonatal behavioral neurological assessment scores, increased rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral problems, changes in child temperament, sensory integration difficulties, as well as reduced cognitive and language scores.

Other adverse child health impacts linked to e-waste include changes in lung function, respiratory and respiratory effects, DNA damage, impaired thyroid function and increased risk of chronic diseases later in life, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Electronic waste in Yangon, Myanmar, January 20, 2021 (Photo by Scott Edmunds)

E-waste volumes are surging globally. According to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) , they grew by 21 percent in the five years up to 2019, when 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated.

This growth is projected to continue as the use of computers, mobile phones and other electronics continues to expand, alongside their rapid obsolescence.

Only 17.4 percent of e-waste produced in 2019 reached formal management or recycling facilities, according to the most recent GESP estimates, the rest was illegally dumped, usually in low-income or middle-income countries, where it is recycled by informal workers.

The GESP found that the 17.4 percent of e-waste that was collected and appropriately recycled in 2019 prevented as much as 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents from being released into the environment.

The WHO report “Children and Digital Dumpsites” calls for:

  • – effective and binding action by exporters, importers and governments to ensure environmentally sound disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers, their families and communities
  • – monitoring of e-waste exposure and health outcomes
  • – facilitating better reuse of materials
  • – encouraging the manufacture of more durable electronic and electrical equipment

WHO also calls on the health community to take action to reduce the adverse health effects from e-waste, by building health sector capacity to diagnose, monitor and prevent toxic exposure among children and women, raising awareness of the potential co-benefits of more responsible recycling, working with affected communities, and advocating for better data and health research on the health risks faced by informal e-waste workers.

“Children and adolescents have the right to grow and learn in a healthy environment, and exposure to electrical and electronic waste and its many toxic components unquestionably impacts that right,” said Dr. Maria Neira, who directs the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the WHO.

“The health sector can play a role by providing leadership and advocacy, conducting research, influencing policy-makers, engaging communities, and reaching out to other sectors to demand that health concerns be made central to e-waste policies.”

A group of 10 UN agencies and international organizations, including the WHO, who have come together to increase collaboration, build partnerships and more efficiently provide support to Member States to address the e-waste challenge.

The World Health Organization’s Initiative on E-waste and Child Health, launched in 2013, aims to increase access to evidence, knowledge and awareness of the health impacts of e-waste; improve health sector capacity to manage and prevent risks, track progress and promote e-waste policies that better protect child health; and improve monitoring of exposure to e-waste and the facilitation of interventions that protect public health.

Featured image: Toxic smoke rises from the e-waste burning site Agbogbloshie in the city of Accra, Ghana. Feb. 28, 2014 (Photo by Fairphone)

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