E-waste an increasing health threat, warns WHO

Monday, June 28th, 2021 00:00 |
E-Waste. Photo/Courtesy

Discarded electronics and electrical appliances remain an increasing threat to millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers across the world, a new report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns.

These e-wastes include used mobile handsets, laptops, desktops and other digital gadgets that have become common daily appliances.

According to the report entitled, Children and Digital Dumpsites, as many as 12.9 million women work in the informal waste sector, which potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk.

At the same time, more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five years of age, are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, of which waste processing is a sub-sector.

Children are often engaged by parents or caregivers in e-waste recycling because their small hands are more dexterous than those of adults.

Other children live, go to school and play near e-waste recycling centres where high levels of toxic chemicals, mostly lead and mercury, can damage their intellectual abilities 

Toxic chemicals

Children exposed to e-waste are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals they contain due to their smaller size, less developed organs and rapid rate of growth and development.

They absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to metabolize or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies.

“With mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent international forum described as a mounting “tsunami of e-waste”, putting lives and health at risk.” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

According to WHO, workers aiming to recover valuable materials such as copper and gold from the discarded e-waste- are at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flames retardants and other toxic substances.

For an expectant mother, exposure to toxic e-waste can affect the health and development of her unborn child for the rest of its life.

Potential adverse health effects include negative birth outcomes, such as stillbirth and premature births, as well as low birth weight and length. 

Exposure to lead from e-waste recycling activities has been associated with behavioural problems, change in child temperament, reduced cognitive and language scores.

Other adverse child health impacts linked to e-waste include changes in lung function, respiratory and respiratory effects, impaired thyroid function and increased risk of some chronic diseases later in life, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The report calls for effective and binding action by exporters, importers and governments to ensure environmentally sound disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers, their families and communities.

It also calls for authorities to monitor e-waste exposure and health outcomes- to facilitate better reuse of materials and to encourage the manufacture of more durable electronic and electrical equipment.

 “Children and adolescents have the right to grow and learn in a healthy environment, and exposure to electrical and electronic waste and its many toxic components unquestionably impacts that right,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the WHO.

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