E-waste pollution can lead to DNA damage, cardiovascular disease and cancer according to a new study from Chinese scientists.
Researchers collected air samples downwind from an electronic waste dismantling site in the Taizhou, Zhejiang province (home to most of China’s e-waste processing), extracted the pollutants and examined their effects on human lung cells.
Open air, low-tech electronics dismantling – such as burning PVC-covered wires or soaking circuit boards in acid to recover metals – exposes workers to airborne toxic particles, scientists explain.
“Our results show that it is imperative that the primitive techniques for dismantlement of e-waste in China must be improved,” Fangxing Yang, study co-author from Zhejiang University, told EnvironmentalResearchWeb.org.
Better methods are crucial, as is protective gear for workers, observers say, but the larger problem is the continued export of e-waste from overseas to countries that are ill-equipped system-wide to handle toxic materials.
“The US and other developed countries have been producing extremely high volume of electronic waste for years and clearly the most profitable thing to do it is sell it and it’s usually China that’s willing to buy it because they’re mining it for new materials,” says Sarah Westervelt, E-Stewardship policy director at the Basel Action Network, which operates the e-Stewards project
The Chinese population may be most immediately at risk because the country absorbs a sizeable segment (if not the majority) of the world’s e-waste.
However, Westervelt stresses, toxins released intro the ground, air and water will make their way around the world, noting that women as far away from e-cycling as Alaska test positive for toxic compounds in their breast milk.
“Heavy metals and chemicals that were once safely sequestered in the earth are now permanently out there and can easily biotransport,” she says.
In the U.S., which recycles a fraction of its own e-waste, much more of the proper e-cycling infrastructure exists, from shredding machines with intense HEPA filters to certified downstream processors for materials such as leaded glass.
And that’s only the beginning, Westervelt explains. Proper electronics recycling requires transparency with workers and the community, trained emergency services and medical support, as well as robust laws to protect workers and provide remediation.
“There’s a network of infrastructure that we take for granted in developed countries, that just doesn’t exist in undeveloped nations.”