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E-waste May Increase Risks for Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer


E-waste, which includes discarded cell phones, computers, printers, and TVs, has been linked to risk factors for cardiovascular disease and possibly cancer. Researchers now say pollutants released from e-waste can have lasting, damaging effects on human health.

Safer processing of e-waste is needed

When people toss way their old, damaged, or oftentimes still functioning electronic devices, they become part of an enormous stream of e-waste, also known as electronic waste. The detrimental impact on the environment from the 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste generated each year worldwide is partially alleviated by massive recycling and dismantling efforts, which may be contributing to health problems.

These health concerns were investigated by researchers who evaluated air samples from a large e-waste dismantling area in China, where much of the world’s e-waste is sent to be processed. The recycling process, however, releases a number of pollutants, such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants, which are inhaled and can accumulate in the body.

Researchers used human lung epithelial cells and exposed them to the collected air samples, then tested the cells for levels of interleukin-8, a biomarker of inflammation; reactive oxygen species (ROS), molecules capable of causing serious cell damage; and expression of a tumor suppressor gene called p53, whose presence indicates that cell damage is taking place.

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The lung cell samples showed significant increases in interleukin-8, ROS, and p53 protein. According to Dr. Fangxing Yang, of Zheijiang University, a co-author of the study, “Both inflammatory response and oxidative stress may lead to DNA damage, which could induce oncogenesis [the formation of tumors] or even cancer. Of course, inflammatory response and oxidative stress are also associated with other diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases.”

Much of the e-waste from the United States and Europe is exported to developing countries, where it is processed. Those countries include Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and China.

Demand for e-waste grew when scrap yards discovered they could extract valuable substances such as copper, iron, gold, and nickel during recycling. However, workers who perform the work are also exposed to a variety of toxins, including cadmium, mercury, lead, polyvinyl chloride, and brominated flame retardants, among others, which can have a negative impact on human health.

The findings of this study highlight several critical factors concerning e-waste and human health, including its relationship to cardiovascular disease and cancer. In addition, Dr. Yang noted that “from these results it is clear that the ‘open’ dismantlement of e-waste must be forbidden…as the results show potential adverse effects on human health.”

Greenpeace International
Institute of Physics