Sunday, March 1, 2009

UK authorities arrest man over export of e-waste

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Authorities in the UK have arrested a man over the export of e-waste into developing countries.

The 46-year-old man, who was not named but identified as from West Sussex is the first to be arrested as part of ongoing crackdown on the illegal export of e-waste from Britain to the developing world, the Environment Agency (EA) of the UK has said. He was arrested on February 18, 2009 and released on bail until May 5, 2009.

The EA has also said it was increasing its efforts to intercept e-waste as it leaves Britain and had prevented 33 cargo containers of electrical goods from leaving the UK in the past six months.

Investigations by Greenpeace, an environmental group and some media, including The Independent and Sky News revealed that 23,000 tonnes of computers are being dumped illegally in Africa every year from the UK, in violation of the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE).

On Friday February 27, 2009, carried a story about the arrest of a container full of e-waste at the port of Amsterdam, in Holland that was ready to be shipped into Ghana.

Ghana and Nigeria have been identified as a choice destination for e-waste or electronics waste, due to weak laws and in most cases lack of enforcement of existing regulations. Local authorities in these countries are ill-equipped and in some cases ill informed on and about the issue of e-waste.

Meanwhile, the Director of Pollutions at Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of environment has told that it is time for sub-regional efforts to tackle the problem. He said the country was embarking on a clampdown of importers of unusable electronics items into the country.

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 air crafts.

Electronics equipment is one of the largest known sources of heavy metals, toxic materials and organic pollutants in city waste.
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 UK government’s action, looked at in context, should be a good sign that something practical is being done to address the issue of e-waste from the UK being dumped into developing countries.

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