Hazardous digital dumpsites heighten cases of cancer, heart disease

• Over 18 million children exposed to harmful e-waste globally
• WHO report warns exposure to pregnant women raises risk of stillbirth, premature births
• 72.6% of e-waste produced in 2019 were illegally dumped in low, middle-income countries
• Nigeria generates N64.2b worth of e-waste, ranks second in Africa after Egypt
• SON, NESREA strengthen ties to check e-waste

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned of soaring e-waste, which affects the health of millions of children, increasing risk of chronic ailments such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases, with more than 18 million children and adolescents globally exposed to the harmful substance.

The First WHO report on e-waste and child health, published yesterday, said exposure of pregnant women to e-waste could lead to stillbirth, premature births, low birth weight, behavioural problems, and reduced cognitive scores.

The WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the world faces a mounting problem of e-waste, which is putting many lives and health at risk. “With mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent international forum described as a mounting ‘tsunami of e-waste’, putting lives and health 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.”

According to the WHO ground-breaking report titled: Children and Digital Dumpsites, effective and binding action is urgently required to protect the millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is jeopardised by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices.

The report further highlighted how little e-waste – castoff phones, computers and other electronics – originates in African nations, as the enormous amounts of e-waste generated by China, the United States, India and other western countries is landing in hazardous dumpsites that impact the health and environment of African children.

The Central African Republic generated just 2.5 kilotonnes of e-waste in 2019, while China was responsible for 10,129. People in Malawi created 10 kilotonnes in 2019, while Japan created 2,569. Egypt, among the African nations with the highest e-waste impact, generated 586 kilotonnes, while the U.S. created nearly 12 times that much.

The Guardian gathered that Nigeria generated 461.3 kilotonnes (KT) in 2019 to rank the highest in West Africa and second after Egypt on the continent. The 461.3kilotonnes amounts to $166,060,000 (N64.2 billion).

Meanwhile, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroun are top destinations for e-waste shipped to dumps that attract thousands of informal workers, including many children who scavenge for valuable materials.

Ghana’s well-known Agbogbloshie site accepts some 215,000 tons of secondhand electronics each year, primarily from Europe, with some 40,000 people living nearby.

In most Nigeria’s cities, there are visible piles of refuse that have built up on roads, riverbanks and swampy land. Many Lagos markets like Ladipo, Alaba International and Computer Village in Ikeja warehouse obsolete electrical and electronic equipment that had been discarded.

The global organisation, which noted that some of the affected children are as young as five years, said they are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, one of which waste processing is a sub-sector.

The health agency said 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which it noted potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk.

WHO also said: “Other children live, go to school and play near e-waste recycling centres where high levels of toxic chemicals, mostly lead and mercury, can damage their intellectual abilities. Children exposed to e-waste are particularly 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 and are less able to metabolise or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies.

“For an expectant mother, exposure to toxic e-waste can affect the health and development of her unborn child for the rest of its life. Potential adverse health effects include negative birth outcomes such as stillbirth and premature births, as well as low birth weight and length.

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

“Other adverse child health impacts linked to e-waste include changes in lung function, respiratory and respiratory effects, Deoxy ribonucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material damage, impaired thyroid function and increased risk of some chronic diseases later in life, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.”

Because Nigeria does not have a formal recycling sector for safe management of e-waste, every month, about 500,000 tonnes of electronic and electrical equipment is dumped in workshops, open spaces, water sources and landfills. Out of an average 500,000 tonnes of used electrical and electronics equipment imported into Nigeria, more than 25 per cent is dead on arrival.

When rain falls on informal waste dumps, polluted liquids leach out. These liquids contain toxic chemicals and metals, bacteria and viruses. They find their way into the ground and surface water, and can be taken up by plants and end up in animals and people.

Genetic damage has been implicated as a cause of cancer and certain other disorders such as Down syndrome and nerve disorders. On what needs to be done, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) have been urged to push out greater awareness on the dangerous substances found in the environment.

Lagos-based waste management expert, Gbenga Adebola, said the attitude of Nigerians towards waste disposal should change. “Waste should be managed sustainably by reducing, reusing, recovering and recycling materials safely. The government should build properly engineered landfills to contain waste.

“Residential areas should be separated from electronic markets. Contaminated soil and water should be treated to protect workers and residents.

Nigeria also needs legislation that deals specifically with electronic waste. The country could be guided by examples provided by the European Union and China’s National Development and Reform Commission.”

MEANWHILE, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) have agreed to strengthen collaboration towards more effective regulation of electronic waste management in Nigeria.

The agreement was reached during a courtesy visit of NESREA management led by the Director General, Dr. Aliu Jauro, to his SON counterpart, Mallam Farouk Salim in Abuja. Jauro raised concern on the negative effects of e-waste in the country, following the influx of obsolete and near end of life electronics into the country, thus requiring closer attention.

The NESREA Chief Executive referred to the two agencies’ active participation in an inter-ministerial consultative committee set up by the Federal Government in 2009 to strategise on curbing the influx of electronic waste and near end of life electrical/electronic equipment and products, which safe disposal poses serious challenge to the nation in view of the hazardous materials contained in them.

In his response, Mallam Salim identified e-waste as a threat to health and the environment when not handled properly, lamenting the general ignorance of the dangers by the larger population while the recyclers prioritise their financial gains over public good and operate freely due to lack of consequences for their negative activities.

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