African status as the world’s technological dump threatens human health
One of the largest open-air dumps for technology products is located in Ghana, where people’s blood is contaminated with poisonous residues.
There are people, including minors, who work there burning trash all the time to recover valuable materials or objects that could be reused.
That high tech dump is not the only one that exists in developing countries, as reports and journalistic works claim.
Most of the waste that accumulates in these areas arrives illegally from the United States, Europe and China.
Many contain dangerous chemical materials, taken from the depths of the Earth and used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other devices.
The resulting pollution affects the environment and the inhabitants of those sites: these discharges can leave traces in their blood, as shown by a series of scientific studies published in 2017 by researchers at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
The health effects of these substances are still largely unknown.
The pulsing global technological race left 45 million metric tons of electronic waste in 2015, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report, carried out by the United Nations University (UNU), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).
The document also foresees an increase of this waste that is dumped in developing countries: in 2021, 50 million metric tons will be surpassed, according to the authors.
There are abysmal differences in the production of electronic garbage between the different regions of the world, according to this report.
In 2016, in the US and Canada, each inhabitant produced on average of about 20 kg of this waste.
In Hong Kong, on average 19 kilograms per person were produced. The inhabitants of the Member States of the EU threw away 17.7 kilograms of technological products each.
On the other hand, the 1.2 billion inhabitants of the African continent each generated an average of 1.9 kilograms of electronic waste.
At the beginning of 2017, one in three countries did not have a national legislation on the subject, according to the UNU report.
“In many regions of Africa, Latin America or south-east Asia, electronic waste is not even recognized as such,” says one of the authors of the UNU report.
In the EU, there is strict legislation, explains the research.
All member countries must establish waste collection and processing points, favor the design and production of reusable appliances and provide annual data on how much electronic waste is generated and how much is recycled, the report says.
“For many countries it is difficult to develop efficient plants. Recycling some types of waste and recovering all materials is expensive, ” explains the report.
This situation means that even in the EU, less than 50% of the generated electronic waste is recycled.
The gap widens if data is considered on a global scale. According to the UNU, the whereabouts of almost 80% of the electronic waste produced worldwide in 2016 remained unknown or not reported.
It is also a problem of definitions. The Basel Convention, signed in 1989 by 186 countries, establishes that hazardous waste exists which cannot be exported as a commercial product.
But it also includes the reuse of products among the main objectives to achieve greater environmental sustainability.
The UNU report explains that, in the case of electronic waste, the distinction between whether something is garbage or a second-hand object is “a long-standing debate”.
“They are exported under the label of reusable products that really are not. One of the methods is to pass them off as donations to developing countries, although when they reach their destination they are not usable,” researchers say.
The European Union Countering WEEE Illegal Trade project estimated that in 2012 alone 1.3 million tonnes of discarded electronic products were exported from the EU in an undocumented way.
It is estimated that 30% of those do-called donations were unusable waste. This explains why part of the electronic waste produced in rich countries ends up in places like Ghana.
Garbage in the blood of the poorest
In a landfill, where such as mobile phones pile up quickly, but also larger appliances and other types of garbage are thrown together. “People work without precautions of any kind,” say researchers.
The conditions of life are lousy. There are people who live in abandoned refrigerators or in the bodies of cars. The materials that come out of this hazardous waste can end up in the ground.
Ghana is not the only place where people suffer from this situation. The second of the studies carried out in the Canary Islands, published a year ago in Enviromental Pollution, examined the blood of 245 individuals who recently arrived from 16 African countries.
Authors assure the public that many chemical elements from technological waste were found in their blood.
The individuals with more quantities of dangerous substances in the body, he adds, are those that came from countries that import electronic waste or with more industrial development.
In another article, published in Environment International, researchers make an association between the presence of these metals and a higher rate of anemia.
The report says that some of these elements belong to the group of “rare earth” minerals such as Sedium, Samarium or Europium that until a few years ago were not used and remained in the subsoil.
“To this day we do not know if they are toxic to individuals or know the levels from which they can produce toxicity. The first thing that needs to be done is to see if indeed the levels of contaminants are increasing and in what populations,” authors say.
The potential for the amount of contaminants to grow is high if countries continue burning mobile phones and throwing them away.
The damages of the pollution do not remain only in the place where it is produced. There is no element in the world that is sealed tight.
“These materials can penetrate the subsoil, in aquifers, and contaminate the food chain,” the latest report explains.
UNU researchers recall that recycling electronic devices allows an important benefit to be obtained, because in this way valuable materials such as gold and silver can be recovered.
That is why he believes that producers must give priority to the design of devices whose components can be exchanged and reused to favor more environmental sustainability.
“The way you treat the environment is reflected in your life, in your health conditions and in your humanity. The environment is your home,” authors conclude.