The Human Cost of E-Waste: Is that new phone really worth the damage?

Elizabeth Grossman starts her book High Tech Trash: The First Global Investigation of Technology’s Toxic Underside by quoting Lyndon B.Johnson :

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than with sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as God really made it, not just as it looked when we got through with it” (Grossman :2006, p.1)

What we are facing nowadays goes beyond the producer responsibility; it is now the era of consumer responsibility. As the phenomenon of the ‘MacHEADS’ shows (a must watch documentary, see the link below) people are obsessed with electronics – particularly Apple. This means that people are not only willing to buy new gadgets, they push the producer to create more and more, most of the time being completely careless about how their old gadget will be recycled or how their new gadget is produced.

To understand the seriousness of the issue one has to look at scientific studies showing the impact of e-waste on health. Sadly, while doing this research, the studies on dangerous health impacts were endless-and unfortunately very over sophisticated since so scientific. Thus, the ordinary buyer is not aware of the consequences of e-waste on human life and cannot easily understand the impacts looking at concrete studies.

Here are some of the toxins and their impact on health(“The impact of Improper E-Waste Recycling”):

  • Lead : is a neurotoxin affecting the nervous, blood, kydney and reproductive systems
  • Brominated flame retardants (that are not used by Apple anymore) : affect the thyroid and fetal development
  • Chromium : affects the liver and kidney, and can cause lung cancer and bronchitis
  • Mercury : affects the brain, kidney, and dental development
  • Cadmium : is cancerogenous, and affects the bones and kidneys

As an example of a particular case, this recent study by researchers (Chen, Dietrich, Huo and Ho:2011) from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and the Shantou University Medical College, found out that “Pregnant women and young children living close to informal e-waste recycling sites are at risk of possible perturbations of fetus and child neurodevelopment”. I picked this example since the different layers of contamination are visible: women who do not work can get contaminated though one of the air, water or food for instance; if she is pregnant, the fetus will be affected too and she will give birth to a child with defects; moreover, if she feeds that baby with breast milk, he will be again exposed to health risks. Thus, there is an unstoppable chain of consequences once the procedure of e-waste is started.

Taking the case study of Guiyi, I post here a link to a video which is an extract of the CBS show “60 Minutes” that shows the harsh reality of e-waste in Guiyi and how it affects its citizens. Also, this video is particularly interesting since you see the role of Hong Kong in this business and the shameless recyclers who promise no dumping…and end up doing it in secret.

Bibliography:

Chen, Dietrich, Huo and Ho, “Developmental Neurotoxicants in E-Waste: An Emerging Health Concern” inEnvironmental Health Perspectives, 119(4) April 2011, can be found athttp://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002452(accessed 05/04/2011)

Grossman, Elizabeth(2006), High Tech Trash: The First Global Investigation of Technology’s Toxic Underside(Island Press), Website homepage= http://www.hightechtrash.com/index.php

MacHEADS” documentary can be found at http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/macheads/

The Impact of Improper e-Waste Recycling” blog, found at http://ewasteproject.blogspot.com/2009/11/health-effects-of-e-waste.html (accessed on 05/05/2011)

“The Electronic Wasteland” video,18 November 2008, found at http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4586903n (accessed on 26/03/2011)

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