Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Health Effects of E-Waste


The town of Guiyu in the Guangdong Province of China was the largest and highest concentrated site of e-waste in China in the late 1990s. In 2001 the Basel Action Network conducted a series of tests on the water, sediment and soil along the Lianjiang River in Guiyu and their findings are striking. Air near some of the electronics salvage operations contains the highest amounts of dioxin measured in the world. The soils are saturated with dioxins. PBDEs (flame retardants common in electronics and harmful to fetal development) are present in the blood of the electronics workers. Citizens of the town suffer from respiratory and skin diseases, headaches, dizziness, and chronic gastric complaints. They have discolored fingernails and skin rashes (Grossman 2006).

Monitors, printers, toner cartridges, keyboards, circuit boards, cell phones, wires, plastic cases are piled along riverbanks and all contain cadmium, copper, lead, PBDEs that leech into the river and contaminate drinking water, (Exporting Harm, 2002). In the mid 1990s the groundwater in Guiyu and neighboring villages became undrinkable and water now has to be trucked in. But dishes are still done in contaminated groundwater. Water samples taken from the river in 2000 showed lead levels to be 2,400 times higher than levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

Although e-waste recycling is no longer legal in Guiyu, it is still practiced behind closed doors, where the toxic fumes are more concentrated and the practice more deadly.

The e-waste contains many chemicals, with known and unknown health consequences.


-Found in CRTs, the glass funnel and the frit of computer monitors (3-8 lbs per monitor), and circuit boards.
-A neurotoxin, causes damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and reproductive system.

-Low level exposure can impair a child’s mental development.

Brominated Flame Retardants

-Found in the plastic casing of computer monitors and towers, circuit boards, cables and wires to prevent flammability.
-May cause thyroid damage and harm fetal development.


-Found in computer towers’ metal housings and plates as hardening and corrosion protection.
-Inhaling the hexavalent form of chromium can damage the liver, kidneys, cause lung cancer and asthmatic bronchitis.
-Chromium easily passes through cell membranes and can cause damage to DNA, (Exporting Harm, 2002).

-Found in flat panel LCD monitors, circuit boards and switches.

-Can cause brain and kidney damage and is also harmful to the developing fetus because it can pass through breast milk.

-Accumulates in living organisms and concentrates through the food chain.


-Found in computer motherboards.
-Inhalation of beryllium dust, fume or mist causes lung cancer.
-Workers can develop Chronic Beryllium Disiease (beryllicosis), a disease that primarily affects the lungs. The disease can develop many years after the last exposure.

-Exposure also causes a skin disease characterized by poor wound healing and wart like bumps, (Exporting Harm, 2002).

-Found in the phosphorescent coating on the interior of the computer screen, in cables and wires, chip resistors, infrared detectors, semiconductor chips, plastic stabilizers, CRTs, and computer batteries.
-Causes cancer and can damage the bones and kidneys, where it accumulates.

-A metal used in the front panel of CRTs to protect users from radiation.

-Exposure to barium causes brain swelling, muscle weakness, and damage to the heart, liver and spleen, (Exporting Harm, 2002).

Carbon Black

-This is the commercial powder form of carbon. It is used in printer inks.
-Inhalation can lead to respiratory tract irritation. It is also a possible carcinogen.

-Found on the interior of CRT faceplates.

-US Navy gives the following guidelines for dealing with CRTs that contain phosphor: “NEVER touch a CRT’s phosphor coating: it is extremely toxic. If you break a CRT, clean up the glass fragments very carefully. If you touch the phosphor seek medical attention immediately,” (Exporting Harm, 2002).

The Story Behind The Numbers:

While the Guiyu situation and contamination atrocities paint a clear scientific picture of the problem occurring in this, and similar regions, it somewhat dehumanizes the harm that is actually happening. When children have to eat from the same bowl where fresh acid was just used to extrapolate the valuable parts of motherboards and machinery, it doesn't leave much hope for a healthy future for that child.

This excerpt from National Geographic is a graphic display of this ferocious problem:

"Yet for some people it is likely too late; a cycle of disease or disability is already in motion. In a spate of studies released last year, Chinese scientists documented the environmental plight of Guiyu, the site of the original BAN film. The air near some electronics salvage operations that remain open contains the highest amounts of dioxin measured anywhere in the world. Soils are saturated with the chemical, a probable carcinogen that may disrupt endocrine and immune function. High levels of flame retardants called PBDEs—common in electronics, and potentially damaging to fetal development even at very low levels—turned up in the blood of the electronics workers. The high school teacher in Taizhou says his students found high levels of PBDEs in plants and animals. Humans were also tested, but he was not at liberty to discuss the results." (Carroll: NatGeo, 2008)

Air and water are being contaminated to the point of entering the bloodstream of animals and plants! Surely this paints a lovely picture when we know the same is happening in human beings. With compromised immune systems and stunting fetal development, our current recycling methods are preventing populations in these areas from ever developing. In America, we panic at the thought of Heavy Metal Poisoning, and in India and China where this is commonplace, they can't go on dialysis to correct the problem, they die. Unless we want the deaths of people on our bloody hands, then it is our responsibility as the largest exporter of electronic waste to make sure that we duplicate philosophies, such as Apple, Inc. and really make an effort to prevent rampant disposal of electronic waste, making it efficient for the cleanup process, as well as changing the lives of not only countless adults, but innocent children.