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UN Cites E-Waste as Health Hazard


The tremendous increase in the amount of e-waste being produced around the world is posing a health hazard as well as an environmental one, according to a new United Nations (UN) study. The irresponsible disposal of computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment is allowing toxic materials to get into the environment and impact the health of people everywhere.

The report was released at a meeting of the UN Environment Programme (Unep) in Bali, and warns that the amount of e-waste being produced could increase by as much as 500 percent over the next ten years as the use of electronic equipment grows and responsible ways to deal with reuse, recycling, and the release of toxins into the environment are not being met.

Many of the materials used in electronic equipment can be reclaimed and reused to produce new products, and indeed this is being done both on a formal and informal basis. In cases of the latter, for example, children in west Africa routinely scavenge ship-loads of e-waste that are dumped every day, looking for valuable metals that they can sell.

While these children and others who scavenge e-waste for saleable materials come in contact with toxins, they are by no means the only ones who are exposed to e-waste poisons. Contaminants from e-waste enter the soil, air, and water and can impact anyone who comes in contact with them.

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According to the nonprofit group World Computer Exchange, an average computer can contain up to 1,000 toxins, including lead, cadmium, mercury, and other heavy metals that are known to damage the nervous system, kidneys, and brain, and to cause cancer and birth defects. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of heavy metals in landfills come from e-waste.

E-waste such as printed circuit boards, laptops, and LCD screen backlights contain mercury which, if it gets into a water supply, can accumulate in living organisms, including fish, mammals, and humans. Mercury can damage a baby’s developing brain and nervous system, while adults can experience organ damage, mental impairment, and other problems.

Lead, also found on printed circuit boards and in computer and television screens, can damage the central and peripheral nervous systems, kidneys, and blood, especially in the fetus and infants. Cadmium, found in semiconductors and chip resistors, can damage the kidneys and liver and cause bone loss. The heavy metal is also known to cause cancer. Brominated flame retardants, present in printed circuit boards, may increase the risk of cancer and disrupt the endocrine system. These compounds can accumulate in fatty tissue and have serious health impacts on fetal development and on breastfeeding infants.

The UN study emphasizes that e-waste is a global problem with worldwide health and environmental consequences. Although there is legislation that encourages recycling of e-waste in some parts of the world, the UN notes that it is not sufficient. Other measures, including support for local community recycling, better enforcement of anti-dumping laws and recycling, and more emphasis on recycling and reuse rather than dumping is necessary. “We see the need for stronger awareness and action to solve the e-waste problem,” says Guido Sonnemann, program officer for Unep, one that will not harm health or the environment.

UN News Service, Feb. 22, 2010
World Computer Exchange