The Poison in Our Phones

Environment Health Magazine

The proliferation of electronic devices in our homes and offices is taking a deadly toll on our health and the environment

Electronic devices are being produced on a massive scale without a thought for the environment. The industry’s business strategy is simple: keep the market vibrant with sales of new products by quicker obsolescence of yesterday’s products. The global electronics manufacturing business is expected to generate revenues of $1.5 trillion by 2023. The production of electronics goods on such a large scale will generate a mountain of e-waste and the remediation of that waste will be critical to the health of the global ecosystem.

“To keep the electronic industry rejuvenated, one after another product is thrown at us. The real problem lies once we are finished using them,” says Sandeep Anirudhan, environmental activist in Bangalore. “We simply dump them, without knowing the damage it will do to the soil or how severely it will pollute the ground. It is the same land we cultivate for food and groundwater is what we drink. So, the process is cyclical, we get what we give.”

India ranks among the top five electronic waste-generating countries in the world after the US, China, Germany, and Japan. Among Indian states, the largest contributors are Maharashtra (19.8%), followed by Tamil Nadu (13%), Uttar Pradesh (10.1%), West Bengal (9.8%), Delhi (9.5%), Karnataka (8.9%), Gujarat (8.8%) and Madhya Pradesh (7.6%).

Currently, India generates 4.6 times more e-waste than it is capable of managing. A report by United Nations’ Global E-Waste monitor, 2017 states that in Asia, total e-waste generation was 18.2 metric tonnes in 2016 out of which 2 metric tonnes was produced by India.

The global volume of e-waste generated is expected to reach 52.2 million metric tons by 2021 from 44.7 million metric tons in 2016 at a compound annual growth rate of 20%, according to a study on Electricals & Electronics Manufacturing in India, conducted by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India. ASSOCHAM predicts that India will generate about 5.2 million metric tons of e-waste by the end of 2020.

E-waste mainly consists of hardware like computer parts, mobile phones, chargers and batteries, air conditioners, cathode ray tubes, disks, power banks, freezers, and many other consumer products. Chemical elements like lead, cadmium, chromium, bromine, mercury, PCBs, PAHs and PBDEs that are present in them can prove lethal for living beings. These elements do not require direct contact to do damage. Accumulated e-waste leaches these elements, which reach us through natural mediums like the air, water (surface and underground) and soil, polluting our crops.

Without proper knowledge, e-waste management can be very dangerous. Constant exposure to these elements can cause permanent damage to the nervous and circulatory systems, kidneys and brain, and may even be responsible for causing respiratory disorders, skin disorders, bronchitis, lung cancer, heart, liver, internal/external organ damage, and spleen damage.

“There are at least 16 types of hazardous chemicals and metals, which occur in e-waste, that need to be separated from the waste and treated, before further processing. Some of these elements start emitting radiation on aging. This radiation is severe enough to cause leukaemia if exposed to for a long time. The government should be extra careful to prevent these e-hazards from reaching the people, especially young ones,” says Anshul Rawal, project coordinator at Saahas, an NGO based in Bangalore

More than adults, children face a threat. In their developing phase, exposure to e-waste, may cause stunned growth and other health issues. Recyclers who recycle, repair, or re-purpose e-waste in their homes are putting their children at serious risk. Children residing near e-waste dumps and areas with where it’s stored in large quantities, also face a serious threat.

Sixteen-year-old Mohamad Kadir has been working for four years in an electrical-repair shop in Kolkata. “Working in an electronic repair shop isn’t easy. There is heavy lifting, tiring and tedious processes of dismantling devices, sitting in a room stuffed with broken electronic parts. But it earns you a proper meal,” he says. His health problems started with the skin on his hands splitting a year after he started working in the shop, he recalls. Kadir is suffering from vitiligo and with each passing month, his hands turn more pale as their colour fades away.

Guiyu in Guangdong province in southern China is known as the world’s largest e-waste site. More than 1,50,000 people reside in Guiyu, working on recycling e-waste. Research conducted Shantou University Medical College in 2009 showed that 80% of children residing in Guiyu have been poisoned by harmful chemicals from e-waste due to being constantly exposed to them.

The study enrolled also 600 pregnant women from Guiyu and from a control site. The researchers measured metal exposures in the women and found out that all of them had an alarming level of harmful metal concentration in their systems. This would affect the neurobehavioral development of their children.

The E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 introduced the concept of extended producer responsibility or EPR for the first time in India which made all the producers of electronic goods responsible for the waste they produced over the lifecycle of the product. The amendment to the e-waste policy, with the new E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016, set stringent targets for the producers to collect and recycle all their products when they ceased to be of use.

But e-waste management regulations are not strong enough to deal with the sort of volumes the industry is generating. Preventing health adversities caused by long term exposure to e-waste is very difficult anywhere, but particularly so in India. There are two major reasons behind it. Enforcing EPR rules is very difficult as most e-waste managers and recyclers belong to the unorganised sector which is a virtually unregulated market. Second, there’s a complete lack of awareness of the health hazards these waste products pose. People who actually handle and recycle e-waste are dawn from the urban poor, are mostly uneducated and have no idea of the risks they are taking or exposing their families to.

But the situation is gradually changing for the better. India has been cautious about the amount e-waste being generated within its borders. Recently, private companies like E-Parisaraa and start-ups like Karo Sambhav have taken the initiative to collect and recycle the e-waste. E-Parisaraa Private Limited, India’s first government-authorized waste recycler has been operating since 2005 and recycles about 200 metric tonnes of e-waste every day to sell as raw material to manufacturers.. The government has started funding more NGOs which deal with e-waste and issues around it to control the damage. It isn’t a day too early.


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