Friday, August 29, 2008

What you must know about e-waste in Ghana

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

The dangers that electronics waste, or e-waste poses to Ghana’s environment and human health are real. It is clear and present danger that we ignore to our own peril.

I raised the red flag with a version of this article which was published in the Daily Graphic issue of June 5, 2007, drawing attention to the looming health and environmental dangers of e-waste to Ghana.
Incidentally, it was the very first article to be written on the subject in the Ghanaian media.

After that I wrote another version for the internet and titled it: ‘E-waste is killing Ghanaians slowly.’ And following my article, a US TV station CBS5 sent down award winning journalist Dana King to do a story on e-waste in Ghana. Chris Carroll also came down to Ghana to do a story on the problem for the National Geographic.

And then on Friday April 10, 2008, Mike Anane an environmental and e-waste campaigner held a press conference to alert the nation over the dangers of e-waste that the country is faced with.

I will however, be surprised if anything dramatic is done to address the problem. I am not being pessimistic, I am just stating the fact! This is Ghana. The Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), does not seem to have a clue about the problem or they are simply incapable of handling it or they just don’t care. And I know because I have talked with them extensively about the problem and got nothing out of them. They simply told me as they do in all cases in this country until something terrible happens that they are still drafting the policy.

Thankfully, as at the time I am rewriting this piece as the introductory article for my blog, so much has happened. The Greenpeace came to Ghana and did a study on the problem. The findings of the study was starling, as soil and water samples that they took from the scrap yard in Agbogbloshie where broken down electronics equipment are dismantled and valuable cables burnt to extract copper wires revealed toxic contents over 100 times more than world allowable standards.

There is presently no direct evidence to show that e-waste related diseases are increasing in Ghana, because no such study has been done, but the scientific evidences made available by the Greenpeace is enough cause for worry. Given the presence of such high levels of toxic chemicals in the environment, it is possible that e-waste could be a large contributing factor to some illnesses in Ghana.

Indeed, following my articles, and pressure from some campaigners and the Greenpeace report, the issue of e-waste is now attracting some concern in Ghana but not so much is being done about it.
The EPA has come out to say they are going to start a campaign on the problem. And Ghana’s Minister of Local Government and Environment, Kwadwo Adjei-Darko, raised the issue during the recent UN Climate Change meeting in Accra, Ghana.

This is reassuring; especially when looked at in the background of growing concerns about e-waste or computer wastes around the world, particularly in developed countries.
This development also is an indication that in Ghana the issue of e-waste is catching on.

What is e-waste?

E-waste is the generic name for electronic or computer wastes. These are discarded electronics devices that come into the waste stream from several sources.

They include gadgets like televisions, personal computers (PCs), telephones, air conditioners, cell phones, and electronic toys.

The list can further be widened to include appliances such as lifts, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, kitchen equipment or even aeroplanes.

The problems posed by e-waste are becoming more challenging, because the increase in the quantity of e-waste in the system is largely due to the speed of technological advancement and innovation coupled by a high obsolete rate. And because of the very critical role of technology in social and economic development, the issue of e-waste has become a complicated one.

Countries of the world are racing against each other in developing new technology, but technological advancement comes at some costs.

Indeed, no nation can develop without technological know-how and expertise. And some of the costs technology leaves in its trail include e-wastes and associated consequences.

These consequences reverberate in potential environmental as well as health hazards that put the globe at risk.

Among industrial waste campaigners the world over, electronics equipment is one of the largest known sources of heavy metals, toxic materials and organic pollutants in city waste.

Due to the speed at which technology is changing, people change their electronic equipment within short periods.

In the US alone, an estimated 30 million computers are thrown out every year. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), of this number, only 14% are recycled.

Available records show that by the end of 2004, over 314 million computers were obsolete and by the year 2007 the cumulative number of obsolete computers in the US is expected to rise to 500 million.

Due to this rapid advancement, the average life-span of computers has shrunk to less than two years. For most people, the lure of new technology is so strong that, they would rather buy a new computer than upgrade an old one, and those PCs that can not be upgraded add up to the waste pile.

Another estimate suggests that by 2010, 100 million cell phones and 300 million PCs will end up on the dumping site.

Sadly, because accurate statistics are often hard to obtain in Ghana and in most cases figures do not exist, estimates of PCs in Ghana are not readily available.

But there are now emerging evidences that Ghana has become a dumping ground for discarded electronics goods.

Moreover, the rate at which electronic gadgets become obsolete in Ghana is not known, taking into account the fact that a good number of PCs and other electronics gadgets that are imported into the country are already old.

E-waste contains dangerous chemicals

E-waste is known to contain dangerous chemical pollutants that are released into the atmosphere and underground water.

The modes of disposal, which include dumping old gadgets into landfills or burning in smelters, also expose the environment and humans to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poison.

These chemicals contain substances like lead, mercury and arsenic.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in most computer monitors and television screens have x-ray shields that contain 4 to 8 pounds of lead, mostly embedded in glass.

Flat screen monitors that are mostly used in laptops do not contain high concentrations of lead, but most are illuminated with fluorescent lights that contain some mercury.

A PC’s central processing unit (CPU), the module containing the chip and the hard disk, typically contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury (in switches), lead (in solder on circuit boards), and cadmium (in batteries).

Plastics used to house computer equipment and cover wire cables to prevent flammability often contain polybrominated flame retardants, a class of dangerous chemicals. Studies have shown that ingesting these substances may increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, and immune system dysfunction.

Lead, mercury, cadmium, and polybrominated flame retardants are all persistent, bio-accumulative toxins (PBTs), that can create environmental and health risks when computers are manufactured, incinerated, landfilled or melted during recycling. PBTs, in particular are a dangerous class of chemicals that linger in the environment and accumulate in living tissues.

And because they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, PBTs can reach dangerous levels in living organisms, even when released in minute quantities. PBTs are harmful to human health and the environment and have been associated with cancer, nerve damage and reproductive disorders.

Looked at individually, the chemicals contained in e-waste are a cocktail of dangerous pollutants that kill both the environment and humans slowly.

Lead, which negative effects were recognized and therefore banned from gasoline in the 1970s causes damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and the reproductive system in humans.

Effects of lead on the endocrine system have been observed, including the serious negative effects it has on children’s brain development. When it accumulates in the environment, it has high acute and chronic effects on plants, animals and micro-organisms.

Cadmium compounds are also toxic with a possible risk of irreversible effects on human health and accumulate in the human body, particularly the kidneys. Cadmium occurs in certain components such as SMD chip resistors, infra-red detectors, and semi-conductor chips.

Mercury on the other hand, can cause damage to various organs including the brain and kidneys as well as the fetus. More especially, the developing fetus is highly susceptible through maternal exposure to mercury.

These are only few of the chemicals used in the manufacture of electronics equipment. Other chemicals are Hexavalent Chromium which is used as a corrosion protection of untreated and galvanized steel plates and as a decorative or hardener for steel housings. Plastics including, PVC are also used. Plastics constitute about 13.8 pounds of an average computer.

The largest volume of plastics, 26% used in electronics is PVC. When PVC is burned, dioxin can be formed because it contains chlorine compounds. Barium, is a soft silvery-white metal that is used in computers in the front panel of a CRT, to protect users from radiation.

Studies have shown that short-term exposure to barium has caused brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the liver, heart and spleen.

Considering the health hazards of e-waste, another ubiquitous computer peripheral scrap worth mentioning is toners. The main ingredient of the black toner is a pigment commonly called, carbon black – the general term used to describe the commercial powder form of carbon.

Inhalation is the primary means of exposure, and acute exposure may lead to respiratory tract irritation.

The country’s EPA is poorly resourced and not motivated enough to do its job of monitoring Ghana’s environment.

Besides, Ghana’s health institutions, apart from facing acute shortage of qualified health professionals, lack the equipment required to handle known and possible side effects of e-waste.

At the Agbogbloshie scrap yard in Accra, some people buy these discarded electronics equipment and use some of the parts to fix faulty equipment, but what happens to the other unwanted parts is anyone’s guess. On a heap inside the market, scrap dealers, including children burn these discarded items, under unhygienic and unsafe circumstances to extract the copper wires for sale, further endangering their health and the environment.

In the absence of any clear policy on e-waste in Ghana, the situation in the country becomes grim.

What is even more surprising is that, in spite of the currency of environmental issues in today’s globalized world, which has lead to the formation of political parties with ideological leanings that seek to pursue environmental issues in some countries, in Ghana, politicians hardly raise environmental issues in their campaign for political power.

It is high time we as a country looked seriously at the growing trend in e-waste and take a decisive step to deal with the problem, before we are slowly, but surely submerged in this cocktail of poisonous chemicals which can only mean disaster which is sure to come.

Environmental campaigners believe that a good heap of the e-waste discarded in developed countries land in developing countries including Ghana, further exposing our people to health hazards we are hardly prepared to handle.

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