…As Informal Waste Sector Employs 12.9 Million Women
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning that the growing amount of e-waste is endangering the health of millions of children .
This is because 12.9 million women work in the informal garbage sector, where they may be exposed to toxic e-waste, endangering themselves and their unborn children.
To safeguard children from a growing health concern, the first WHO report on e-waste and child health advocates for more effective and binding action.
Meanwhile, more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five years old, work in the informal industrial sector, which includes trash processing.
Because children’s hands are more dexterous than adults’, they are frequently involved in e-waste recycling by their parents or caretakers. Other children live, attend to school, and play near e-waste recycling centers, where they are exposed to high quantities of harmful substances, primarily lead and mercury, which can harm their cognitive ability. Because of their smaller size, less developed organs, and quick rate of growth and development, children exposed to e-waste are particularly vulnerable to the hazardous compounds it contains. They take in more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to metabolize or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said that effective and binding action is urgently needed to protect the millions of children, adolescents, and expectant mothers whose health is jeopardized by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices around the world.
Children and Digital Dumpsites, according to a new groundbreaking report from the World Health Organization.
“With rising volumes of manufacturing and disposal, the globe is facing a rising “tsunami of e-waste,” putting lives and health at risk,” according to one recent international meeting.
“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.”
Impact of e-waste on human health
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).
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 significantly reduced neonatal behavioural neurological assessment scores, increased rates of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioural problems, changes in child temperament, sensory integration difficulties, and 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 some chronic diseases later in life, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Similarly, Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, the Lead WHO Author on the report said, “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.”
“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.”
A rapidly escalating problem
E-waste volumes are surging globally. According to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), they grew by 21% in the five years up to 2019, when 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated. For perspective, last year’s e-waste weighed as much as 350 cruise ships placed end to end to form a line 125km long. 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% of e-waste produced in 2019 reached formal management or recycling facilities, according to the most recent GESP estimates, the rest was illegally dumped, overwhelmingly in low- or middle-income countries, where it is recycled by informal workers.
Appropriate collection and recycling of e-waste is key to protect the environment and reduce climate emissions. In 2019, the GESP found that the 17.4% of e-waste that was collected and appropriately recycled prevented as much as 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents from being released into the environment.
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; to monitor e-waste exposure and health outcomes; to facilitate better reuse of materials; and to encourage the manufacture of more durable electronic and electrical equipment.
It 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.
Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the WHO said, “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”
While adding that, “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.”