“E-waste”— the popular term for our discarded electronic equipment and gadgets—litters rapidly growing disposal sites in China, India, and other developing nations. Though out of sight to much of the Western world, these digital landfills are hellish spots. Georgia Green MS ’11 ought to know. In summer 2010 as a student, she traveled to Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in West Africa to study a bustling, unregulated e-waste industry in the principal city of Abidjan. “It’s a big mess,” she says of the makeshift dumps strewn with piles of dismantled and sometimes burned digital components, cathode ray tubes, plastic parts, and insulation.Beyond the obvious eyesore they have created, the West’s cast-off electronics pose significant health and environmental hazards. “E-waste is not benign,” says Green. Often dismantled for copper, gold, and other valuable materials, electronic devices contain a slew of such hazardous substances as lead, cadmium, mercury, brominated flame retardants, and PCBs that pose hazards to workers who do the dismantling or burn the remaining waste. Studies of the notorious e-waste dismantling hub of Guiyu, China, have turned up contaminated dust, elevated lead and cadmium levels in children’s blood, and elevated measurements of toxics in the air, soil, aquatic organisms, and food.
Abidjan is a lesser-known destination for the controversial and often illegal export of e-waste. During her six-week stay, Green found vast quantities of discarded electronics and a thriving sector of informal workers who eke out a living fixing gadgets or destroying them for parts. “It looks like Africa is on the receiving end of the next wave of e-waste and its associated hazards,” says Megan Schwarzman MD, MPH ’07. Schwarzman is a research scientist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) and was Green’s academic adviser.
Green’s research is believed to be the first academic study of e-waste work and its cumulative health effects in the region. Her goal is to document the potential health risks to workers from occupational exposures during unsafe repair and salvage operations.
“Workers are physically breaking the non-working products apart to get to the usable components and precious metals inside.” And, says Green, much of the dismantling work is being performed by children.
To conduct her study, Green recruited local medical students to survey 139 adult and teenage e-waste repairmen, dismantlers, and “scrappers” working in tiny repair shops or disposal sites around the city. A wide-ranging questionnaire gathered demographic information and details on health issues (such as illnesses and injuries), workplace exposures, use of protective equipment, and other qualitative data, such as why the workers had chosen their line of work.
Green expects to publish her findings soon in a scientific journal. With this cross-sectional snapshot of the population, she hopes her work will spur more research and ultimately lead to interventions that protect the health and livelihood of e-waste workers. “Looking at who the population is and what their exposures are is the first step to making sensible policies that would reduce the harm from their exposures,” says Green, a New Jersey native with a longstanding interest in environmental contamination. She holds a 2007 bachelor’s degree from Berkeley in conservation and resource studies.
Finding a solution to the disposal of electronic trash should be everyone’s concern, she maintains. “It’s relevant to everybody,” she says. Due to a combination of rapidly developing technology and planned obsolescence, “there are just going to be more cell phones and laptops in the world.”In fact, e-waste is the fastest-growing component of the world’s garbage stream. The United Nations has estimated that as a planet we generate 40 million tons of e-waste annually. In 2006 alone, Americans tossed out an estimated 330 million electronic devices.
Currently, there is no system that tracks the origin or amount of e-waste flowing into developing countries. Though international exports of hazardous wastes from wealthy to poor nations are banned under provisions of the Basel Convention and a subsequent Basel Ban, the United States has not signed the agreements. Even in countries that have banned e-waste exports, illegal shipments persist.
In the United States, an estimated 80 percent of all e-waste winds up in municipal solid waste sites domestically. Of the remaining 20 percent that is recycled, some 50 to 80 percent is shipped abroad to places like Abidjan. A 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that “current U.S. regulatory controls do little to stem the export of potentially hazardous used electronics.”
Green’s study was clearly no ordinary summer research project. Along with its global implications, her work called for synthesizing many facets of a “complicated cultural, political and economic issue,” says Michael P. Wilson PhD ’03, MPH ’98, a COEH research scientist who also advised Green. “She got out into the field and spent a long time understanding the dynamics of what’s happening there.”
One of her immediate priorities was gaining the trust of workers who might be understandably uncomfortable sharing information with an American outsider. Collaborating with Dr. Mathias Kouassi, an occupational health professor at Abidjan’s University of Cocody and former Fulbright fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Green was introduced to a union of electronics technicians. “The union was instrumental in giving me access to the workforce,” says Green. “It was really a linchpin of the project.”
Though her study protocol prevented her from interviewing children, Green observed plenty of them performing e-waste work. One day, she saw a group of youngsters sitting around a fire while perched on upturned computer screens near the banks of a lagoon. The children were burning plastic-coated wires to extract the precious copper underneath. One teenager had a gaping wound on his foot from an accidental burn. “Openly burning plastics is never a good thing,” says Green, referring to the potential for carcinogenic exposure.Green rarely witnessed safety precautions or the use of protective gear. Repairmen soldered circuit boards on their laps and many laborers worked barefoot or in flip-flops.
While aware of a humanitarian debate swirling around the issue of e-waste exports, Green is not prepared to join in calls for a complete halt to their international trade. So far, she says, such attempts have proved ineffective and don’t take into account the jobs that e-waste disposal has created for poor people in impoverished lands. “It might be better to focus on solutions to the resulting health and environmental problems in developing countries,” she notes.
Reducing toxics in electronics manufacturing or designing equipment that is more easily upgraded and repaired are potential strategies. Additionally, Green supports the development of modernized e-waste processing plants that could provide safer work environments and job benefits. Such investments could be sound business opportunities that improve social and health conditions, she says. “There are lots of solutions that haven’t been tried yet in Africa,” she says. “There are interventions that make sense both economically and environmentally.”
Green graduated in May with a degree in global health and environment. She credits grants from the Center for Global Public Health and the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, along with Sigma Xi, for making her project possible. While Schwarzman and Wilson plan follow-up studies building on Green’s work, political unrest in the city of Abidjan is putting those plans on hold for now.