E-waste Recycling is Serious Health Threat in China


When used computers, televisions and other electronic products are ready to go up to that big scrap heap in the sky, they often end their journeys lying in some large landfill in China. Indeed, over the last decade, China has quickly become the de facto repository for developed countries' discarded electronics, known collectively as "e-waste."

While it's been known for years that e-waste poses serious health risks to Chinese workers who recycle the products to extract precious materials like gold, a new study has just revealed that Guiyu, a major e-waste recycling center, has the highest documented levels of polychlorodibenzo-p-dioxins (which are known to cause cancer) and polychlorodibenzofurans in the world. Ping'an Peng of the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry and his colleagues arrived at these conclusions by sampling Guiyu's air for a week during the summer and the winter to measure levels of dioxins.Noxious chemicals and metals, such as lead, are released when the used electronics are dunked into pits of acid and heated over coal-fueled grills. Researchers at the Hong Kong Baptist University previously demonstrated in March that the soil at these recycling centers possessed the highest concentrations of dioxin and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), a commonly used flame retardant linked to abnormal thyroid metabolism and brain development. Another study showed that workers' blood levels at the sites contained levels of heavy PBDE-BDE–209 50 to 200 times higher than the norm.

These results are "not surprising," said Oladele Ogunseitan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who added: "The significance of the paper is to provide us with the first estimate of what [levels] to expect. As a next step, what needs to be done is as an epidemiological study looking for actual symptoms, but I imagine that this is not a trivial thing to do."

"I've always advocated that the U.S. must now take very seriously the Basel Convention that prohibits the shipment of hazardous wastes to other countries. We are, in principle, a country that will do this kind of thing on purpose. But by our inaction on international laws that protect vulnerable populations all over the world, we are essentially saying that it's OK," he explained, stating that the U.S. in particular bears much of the blame since it exports approximately 50-80% of its e-waste to China.

Switching to "proper recycling facilities" with clean technologies and cutting back on the use of toxic metals and PBDEs in the manufacturing process are key to ameliorating the situation, said Gareth Thomas of Lancaster University. That and, needless to say, we have to stop sending our used electronics over to China and other developing nations and learn how to properly recycle them.

Via ::ES&T;: E-waste recycling spews dioxins into the air (news website)

See also: ::New Yorkers E-waste Le$$, ::Electronics Recyclers: Keeping E-Waste Out of California, ::How to: Recycle Your Computer

Related Content on Treehugger.com