Health

Children in poor countries overwhelmed by ‘tsunami’ of electronic waste


A mounting “tsunami” of electronic waste is jeopardising the health of millions of women and children working in unregulated dumpsites around the world, a report by the World Health Organization has warned. 

The first ever WHO report on the impact of electronic waste on children’s health calls for effective and binding action to protect children, adolescents and pregnant women in poorer countries, who scrape a living by processing discarded electrical and electronic devices – much of which is dumped by richer nations.

The report shows that the amount of dumped items has risen by 21 per cent in the five years up to 2019, when 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated.

And just 17.4 per cent of waste produced in 2019 reached formal management or recycling facilities. The rest was illegally dumped, mainly in low- or middle-income countries, where it is recycled by informal workers. 

The average Briton produces 24.9kg of e-waste a year, compared to 17.7kg in the European Union. 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, talked of a “mounting tsunami of e-waste”, that is putting the lives of many at risk. 

“In the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution, we need to rally to protect our most valuable resource – the health of our children – from the growing threat of e-waste,” he said. 

The report estimates that more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five, work in the informal industrial sector, of which waste processing is a part. Children live, go to school and play near waste recycling centres where high levels of toxic chemicals – mostly lead and mercury – can lead to neurological damage, the report warns. 

Children exposed to electrical waste are more 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 metabolise or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies, the report says.

The report also warns that an estimated 12.9m women are exposed to electronic waste, potentially putting the health of their unborn children at risk. Women working in these sites are more likely to suffer stillbirth and premature births, as well as have babies with a low birth weight and length. 

Children exposed to lead in the womb are more likely to suffer attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and behavioural problems as well as cognitive problems. Long-term health impacts include lung function, respiratory and respiratory effects, DNA damage, impaired thyroid function and increased risk of some chronic diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“A child who eats just one chicken egg from Agbogbloshie, a waste site in Ghana, will absorb 220 times the European Food Safety Authority daily limit for intake of chlorinated dioxins,” said Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, the lead WHO author on the report.

“Improper e-waste management is the cause. This is a rising issue that many countries do not recognise yet as a health problem. If they do not act now, its impacts will have a devastating health effect on children and lay a heavy burden on the health sector in the years to come.” 

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