Toxic e-waste dumpsites pose adverse health risks to millions of children globally

The rising volumes of electronic waste dumps across the world are posing huge health danger to millions of children and adolescents.

The latest data from Global e-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) shows that e-scrap grew by 21 per cent in the five years to 2019, when 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated.

In 2020, the volume of e-waste produced weighed as much as 350 cruise ships placed end to end to form a line 125km long.

Unfortunately, this growth is projected to continue as the use of computers, mobile phones, and other electronic gadgets is on an upward trend.

Only 17.4 per cent of e-waste produced in 2019 reached formal recycling centres according to GESP estimates, the rest was illegally dumped in low- or middle-income countries, where it is recycled by informal workers.

About 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at a high risk.

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To an expectant mother, exposure to toxic e-waste can affect the health and development of their unborn child for the rest of its life.

Some of the potential adverse health effects include stillbirth and premature births as well as low birth weight and length.

Exposure to lead from e-waste recycling has been associated with significantly reduced neonatal behavioral neurological assessment scores, increased rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, behavioral problems, changes in child temperament, sensory integration difficulties, and reduced cognitive and language scores.

At the same time, over 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five years of age, are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector of which waste processing is a sub-sector.

This further exposes them to e-waste since they are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals they contain due to their age, less developed organs, and rapid rate of growth and development in their bodies.

Children absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to metabolize or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies.

Other adverse child health impacts linked to e-waste include changes in lung function, respiratory effects, DNA damage, impaired thyroid function, and increased risk of some chronic diseases later in life.

Effective initiatives are urgently needed to protect the millions of children, adolescents, and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is at risk because of informal processing of discarded electronic devices according to new report the World Health Organization: Children and Digital Dumpsites.

“With mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent the international forum described as amounting to “tsunami of e-waste”, putting lives and health at risk.” said Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “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.”

Appropriate collection and recycling e-waste is key to protect the environment and reduce climate emissions. In 2019, the GESP found that the 17.4 percent of e-waste that was collected and appropriately recycled prevented as much as 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents from being released into the environment.

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