E-Waste Harms Human Health; New Research Details How

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A man covers his face sorting through e-waste in China.

Jim Xu / Contributor / Getty Images

E-waste is a serious environmental problem, from toxic chemicals and heavy metals leaching into soils in landfills, to the pollution to air and water supplies caused through improper recycling techniques in developing countries. While we know e-waste is harmful to human health, particularly to those working directly with it in e-waste dumps, new research sheds light on exactly how it impacts us. Science Daily brings our attention to a new study published in Environmental Research Letters that took air samples from from Taizhou of Zhejiang province in China -- one of the largest dismantling areas in the country that uses 60,000 people to dismantle over two million tons of e-waste annually -- and explored how the chemicals found in that air affects human lungs.

E-Waste Health Risks

A man strips e-waste outside in China.

Jim Xu / Contributor / Getty Images

The researchers found that e-waste pollution in the air, that workers in these e-waste dumps breath in constantly, cause inflammation and stress that lead to heart disease, DNA damage and possibly even cancer.

After exposing the cultured lung cells to the organic-soluble and water-soluble constituents of the samples, the researchers tested for the level of Interleukin-8 (IL-8), a key mediator of inflammatory response, and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), chemically reactive molecules that can cause extensive damage in excess.The samples were also tested for the expression of the p53 gene -- a tumour suppressor gene that produces a protein to help counteract cell damage. If there is evidence of this gene being expressed it can be seen as a marker that cell damage is taking place.The results showed that the samples of pollutants caused significant increases in both IL-8 and ROS levels -- indicators of an inflammatory response and oxidative stress respectively. Significant increases were also observed in the levels of the p53 protein with the risk of organic-soluble pollutants being much higher than water-soluble pollutants.

We are well aware of the fact that e-waste dumps are a massive problem for the environment, for the people working within them, and for the people living nearby these dumps. By instituting regulations for how e-waste is handled in the recycling stream, many of these health issues could be mitigated. Yet the possibility of better recycling practices is slim. A report last year showed that India will see a 500% increase in e-waste being imported for processing, and China and South Africa will see a 400% increase from 2007 levels over the next 10 years. Disposing E-Waste

The Times of India reports that India will require all computers and electronics to be disposed of in collection centers by 2012. While that helps with keeping e-waste out of landfills, it doesn't necessarily help with how the gadgets are processed.

While some countries and companies have instituted bans on exporting e-waste to dumps, rather than to approved recycling facilities, there are loopholes that make it easy to send items to these dumps for cheap processing -- and some recyclers flat out lieabout where they're sending the electronics they collect. For the people who work there, there is often little alternative for generating an income.

The issue can seem overwhelming, but perhaps by knowing exactly what health problems e-waste dumps cause among those living in and near them, activist groups and governments might get more involved in regulating how electronics are processed at end of life.