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Growing Threat of E-waste Affecting Millions of Children Worldwide, WHO Warns

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By IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub , September 29, 2021

  

Effective and binding action is needed to protect millions of children, adolescents, and expectant mothers, whose health is threatened by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices, according to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The June 2021 report titled, ‘Children and Digital Dumpsites,’ explains that millions of tonnes of toxic electronic waste are dumped each year, putting children’s health at risk. It states that more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five, are engaged in the informal industrial sector, of which waste processing is a sub-sector. Children are often engaged in e-waste recycling as their small hands are more dexterous than those of adults. Others live, go to school, and play near e-waste recycling centers where high lead and mercury levels can damage their intellectual abilities. In addition, workers, aiming to recover such materials as copper and gold, risk exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances, including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Only 17.4% of e-waste is recycled responsibly, while the rest is illegally dumped, overwhelmingly in low- or middle-income countries.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the “tsunami of e-waste” deserves the same attention as protecting the ocean and its ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution.

Potential adverse health effects of e-waste on unborn children can lead to, inter alia, stillbirth and premature births, as well as low birth weight and length. Other adverse child health impacts linked to e-waste include changes in lung function, respiratory and respiratory effects, DNA damage, impaired thyroid function, and increased risk of some chronic diseases later in life, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Many countries still do not recognize improper e-waste management as a health problem.

The report calls for action by exporters, importers, and governments to: ensure environmentally sound disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers, their families, and communities; monitor e-waste exposure and health outcomes; facilitate better reuse of materials; and encourage the manufacture of more durable electronic and electrical equipment. It also calls on the health community to:

  • build health sector capacity to diagnose, monitor and prevent toxic exposure among children and women;
  • raise awareness of the potential co-benefits of more responsible recycling;
  • work with affected communities; and
  • advocate for better data and health research on the health risks faced by informal e-waste workers. 

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is the world’s fastest growing domestic waste stream. According to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was produced globally in 2019, increasing 21% in just five years. By 2050, the volume of e-waste could top 120 million tonnes annually. This growth is projected to continue as the use of computers, mobile phones and other electronics continues to increase, alongside the obsolescence of older equipment. Currently only 17.4% of it is recycled responsibly, while the rest is illegally dumped, overwhelmingly in low- or middle-income countries, where it is recycled by informal workers. Safely disposing of e-waste is hazardous, complex, and expensive. Some e-waste ends up in normal waste bins, while significant amounts are shipped to low- and middle-income countries, often illegally. 

The WHO has also highlighted Uruguay’s efforts to manage the harmful effects of e-waste. Uruguay generates one of the highest rates of e-waste per capita in Latin America. The Children’s Environmental Health Unit (UPA) in Montevideo works with city and government stakeholders and with communities, raising awareness and training health professionals to better diagnose and treat diseases linked to environmental risk factors. Also in Montevideo, some companies specialize in waste management and responsibly recycle e-waste, while other projects facilitate the repair and reuse of personal computers to reduce the volume of e-waste.

WHO is currently running pilot projects in African and Latin American to create frameworks for protecting child health from e-waste exposures, which can then be adapted and replicated in different contexts and countries.

The report was produced with input and support from the E-Waste Coalition, a group of 10 UN agencies and international organizations who seek to increase collaboration, build partnerships, and provide support to Member States to address the e-waste challenge. [Publication: Children and Digital Dumpsites] [WHO Initiative on E-waste and Child Health] [WHO Press Release on the Children and Digital Dumpsites Report [WHO Press Release on Uruguary]