The Proper Management of eWaste Part II

The second article in a series about the current state of ewaste management around the world by SORT South Bank Hub participant Chris Blair. You can find part one here.

The careless disposal of ewaste has become a growing problem in countries around the world, regardless of their socioeconomic status, however none are more hard hit than developing countries without the legislature, leadership or means to prevent the import of non-functional electronic devices. Countries such as Ghana have not only allowed the dumping of ewaste but even begun to profit from it, with the countries economic vulnerability leading to the creation of a large industry sustaining its citizens.

Comparable to a small settlement, the Agbogbloshie disposal site has become an economic necessity to the people of the city of Accra in Ghana. Infamous around the world as one of the largest ewaste dumping grounds in existence it has become a constant reminder of the damage the improper disposal of ewaste can have on environments and people. The soil in Agbogbloshie has a lead content that is 45 times higher than standards set out by the EPA, with other metals also present in terrifying concentrations. This chemical saturation has not only affected the environment but the people of Accra too, with one notable instance of a local worker displaying 17 times the recommended level of serum aluminium.

map of the Agbogbloshie dumping ground

A map of the Agbogbloshie dumping ground by Martin Oteng-Ababio, courtesy of African Studies Quarterly.

Such exposures have become a fact of life for the people of Ghana as the formal sector, damaged by government incompetence, has been severely weakened, forcing workers to seek employment in the informal sector, which in 2012 comprised 60% of all employment in the country. Key to the creation of a strong, urban informal sector has been the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), and if that sounds familiar perhaps you remember the economic reforms that in a few short years turned Zimbabwe from the granary of the IMF to a country ravaged by civil war and starvation. It involves the adoption of neo-liberal policies allowing for the privatization of government owned utilities as well as giving international corporations free access into Ghana, leading to reduced salaries, lost jobs and increasing costs.

Agbogbloshie dumping ground

A view of the Agbogbloshie dumping ground. Image courtesy of Andrew McConnell.

This growing informal sector has had the benefit of allowing the people of Ghana a chance to fight the poverty with which they are faced, and indeed workers claim that it is more lucrative than the agriculture industry. In dumping grounds such as Agbogbloshie scavenging for parts and metals has become the most prominent economic strategy for locals, who often burn electronic devices and cables, using polystyrene as fuel, in order to extract precious metals.

Electronic devices are capable of releasing numerous harmful chemicals upon breakdown, notably lead and mercury, however one substance becoming increasingly prevalent in countries effected by ewaste dumping is Brominated Fire Retardant (BFR).

BFRs - Brominated Fire Retardants

BFRs – Brominated Fire Retardants come in several forms, many of them toxic to humans. Image courtesy of the Journal of Environmental Monitoring.

Contained in the plastic casings of electronic devices BFRs are typically stored it fatty tissues, which allows it to move up the food-chain in ever increasing amounts and eventually effect human populations. While stored in fat, the BFR concentration of women has been mirrored by their unborn children in foetal cord blood, as well as in breast milk. This accumulation means that once a population has been exposed to these chemicals it can be difficult to remove.

High BFR concentrations in adults have been linked to cancer and disruption of thyroid hormones however they are most dangerous in children where they disrupt the development of the brain. Altering brain neurotransmitter levels as well as disrupting the creation of thyroid hormone, foetuses and children exposed to high levels of BFR typically display lower intelligence, learning ability and memory.

The environmental saturation of BFRs are just one of many health consequences of the dumping of ewaste, and one that effects us all. High concentrations of BFR in adiposal tissues are not strictly the purview of developing countries either, with unnervingly high amounts being recorded in United States women. As the saturation of harmful chemicals increase world-wide it is clear that ewaste is not a problem that will simply go away.