Children and Digital Dumpsites: WHO

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    Recently, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report has stated that over 18 million kids at e-waste dumpsites face the threat of health hazards.

    About the Report

    • The report, titled Children and Digital Dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child health was published in June 2021.
    • It underlined the risk children faced while working in the informal processing of discarded electronic devices or e-waste.
    • It also summarized the latest scientific knowledge on the links between informal e-waste recycling activities and health outcomes in children.

    Major Findings

    • Threats to Children and Women: As young as 5 years old children, total amounting to 18 million children and 12.9 million women, including pregnant women, work at these dumpsites every year posing threat to themselves of the effect of the hazardous waste.
    • Health Hazards: The report stressed that children working at these ‘digital dumpsites’ are more prone to improper lung function, deoxyribonucleic acid damage and increased risk of chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease.
    • Indiscriminate Dumping: Every year, the e-waste from high-income countries is dumped in the middle or low-income countries for processing; the latter do not even have proper safeguarding regulation. This makes the process even more dangerous.
    • Increasing Awareness: The report is intended to increase awareness and knowledge among health professionals of the dangers that e-waste recycling poses to the health of future generations and is a call to action to reduce children’s exposure to harmful e-waste activities.
    • Rising e-Waste: The volume of e-waste generated is surging rapidly across the globe. 
      • It has grown 21 per cent since 2014 and is set to keep expanding.
      • About 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2019, according to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership. It is expected to reach 74.7 million tonnes by 2030, while global employment in the waste sector is projected to soar by some 70 per cent, or another 45 million jobs, many of them in e-waste processing.
      • Only 17.4 per cent of this e-waste was processed in formal recycling facilities. 

    Impacts on Children and Women

    • Prenatal and childhood exposures to e-waste toxicants are associated with: 
      • impaired neurological and behavioural development.
      • negative birth outcomes.
      • lung function and respiratory effects (including cough, wheeze and asthma).
      • impaired thyroid function.
      • changes in cardiovascular system function.
      • DNA damage.
      • immune system impacts (including greater vulnerability to infection, reduced immunization response and higher rates of allergies and autoimmune diseases).
      • increased risks of chronic disease later in life (including cancer and cardiovascular disease).
    • Expectant mothers exposed to these toxicants face higher risks of negative birth outcomes, such as: 
      • Stillbirth.
      • Premature births.
      • Low birth weight and length.
      • Impaired neurodevelopment in their babies.
    • Post Natal Hazards
      • Lead: Exerts toxic effects on various systems in the body such as the central (organic affective syndrome) and peripheral nervous systems (motor neuropathy), the hematopoietic system (anaemia), the genitourinary system (capable of causing damage to all parts of nephron) and the reproductive systems (male and female).
      • Mercury: Causes damage to the genitourinary system (tubular dysfunction), the central and peripheral nervous systems as well as the foetus. When inorganic mercury spreads out in the water, it is transformed into methylated mercury, which bio-accumulates in living organisms and concentrates through the food chain, particularly by fish.
      • Cadmium: Is a potentially long-term cumulative poison. Toxic cadmium compounds accumulate in the human body, especially in the kidneys. There is evidence of the role of cadmium and beryllium in carcinogenicity.
      • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH): Affects lung, skin and bladder. Epidemiological studies in the past on occupational exposure to PAH provide sufficient evidence of the role of PAH in the induction of skin and lung cancers.

    (Image Courtesy: WHO Report)

    Challenges

    • Devastating Health Effects on Children: Children are less likely to metabolise or eradicate pollutants absorbed and are more prone to improper lung function and at the risk of chronic diseases. E.g. A child who eats just one chicken egg from Agbogbloshie, a waste site in Ghana, will absorb 220 times the European Food Safety Authority daily limit for intake of chlorinated dioxins.
    • Increase in IMR and MMR: Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) and Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) are bound to increase when pregnant women and children are exposed to such an environment.
    • Unorganized Waste Management Systems: e-waste is often discarded alongside other solid waste, ending up in landfills. Such discarded e-waste can leach toxicants into aquifers and drinking water supplies.
    • Impacts Across Neighborhoods: The hazardous impact of working at such sites is also experienced by families and communities that reside in the vicinity of these e-waste dumpsites. 
    • Pollution from Burning: The burning of e-waste materials to extract metals also makes e-waste sites frequent sources of intense air pollution contaminated by toxic mixes of harmful particles, including heavy metals and industrial chemicals and compounds.
    • Informal Processing: Illegal processing by informal workers is a major threat. Informal methods of removing materials from e-waste have been linked to a range of health effects, especially in children
    • Rise in Use of Electronic Appliances: E-Waste is likely to increase in the coming years because of the rise in the number of smartphones and computers.
    • Burden on Health Sector: Its impacts will lay a heavy burden on the health sector in the years to come. Most of the countries facing this issue are low and middle income. This enhanced health impact will take toll on finance of the country
    • Babies are More Prone: Babies face additional risks from the body burdens of their mothers through breast milk and transplacental exposure and from direct contact with toxic chemicals from frequent hand-to-mouth behaviour.

     

    Recommendations/Suggestions

    • Ensure health and safety of e-waste workers, children, their families and communities with systems that train and protect workers, that monitor exposures and health outcomes, and that make protecting children the highest policy priority.
    • Enforce sound environmental health practices for disposal, recapture and reuse of materials.
    • Shift towards a circular economy by manufacturing more-durable electronics and electrical equipment, using safer and less-toxic materials, and encouraging sustainable consumption to reduce e-waste, as opposed to the current trend of increasing turnover.
    • Manage e-waste by prioritizing health and environmental protection throughout the life cycle, with reference to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, appropriate regional conventions and the Sustainable Development Goals on waste management.
    • Eliminate child labour and incorporate adult e-wastes workers into the formal economy with decent conditions across the value chain of collection, processing/recycling and resale by incorporating informal workers in the formal economy. 
    • Calls for binding action by exporters, importers and governments to ensure environmentally sound disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers and communities.
    • The health sector is also being asked to reduce adverse effects from e-waste by building up capacity to diagnose, monitor and prevent toxic exposure, and to advocate for better data and health research on risks faced by informal e-waste workers.
    • The health sector can play a role by providing leadership and advocacy, conducting research, influencing policy-makers, engaging communities, and reaching out to other sectors to demand that health concerns be made central to e-waste policies.
    • Better recycling presents opportunities for increased income and decreased demand for new materials. 
    • Regional and national capacity-building for health-based assessment of e-waste policies and regulations, particularly regarding children’s health;
    • Raising awareness of e-waste health risks and encouraging responsible recycling with policy-makers, communities, waste workers and their families; 
    • Building health sector capacity to diagnose, monitor and prevent toxic exposures within primary health care services for children and women;
    • Pursuing better data and further research about women and children involved with e-waste, as well as studies about implementation and effectiveness of protective measures.

     

    Efforts by WHO

    • The WHO Initiative on E-waste and Child Health was launched in 2013.
    • It aims to
      • Increase access to evidence, knowledge and awareness of the health impacts of e-waste.
      • Improve the health sector capacity to manage and prevent risks, track progress. 
      • Promote e-waste policies that better protect child health.
      • Improve monitoring of exposure to e-waste and the facilitation of interventions that protect public health.
    • WHO is a member of the E-Waste Coalition, a group of 10 UN agencies and international organizations who have come together to increase collaboration, build partnerships and more efficiently provide support to Member States to address the e-waste challenge.
    • At the local level, WHO is helping to develop frameworks to protect children from e-waste exposure. 
    • The pilot projects aim to promote local advocacy and collaborate with communities, build the capacity of primary health systems to address risks by monitoring e-waste exposure and measuring the success of interventions. 
    • These projects are designing frameworks that can be adapted and replicated in different countries and settings and are currently being run in the African Region and the Region of the Americas.

    Basel Convention

    • The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted on 22nd March 1989 by the Conference of Plenipotentiaries in Basel, Switzerland, in response to a public outcry following the discovery, in the 1980s, in Africa and other parts of the developing world of deposits of toxic wastes imported from abroad.
    • Awakening environmental awareness and corresponding tightening of environmental regulations in the industrialized world in the 1970s and 1980s had led to increasing public resistance to the disposal of hazardous wastes, in accordance with what became known as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome, and to an escalation of disposal costs. 
    • This in turn led some operators to seek cheap disposal options for hazardous wastes in Eastern Europe and the developing world, where environmental awareness was much less developed and regulations and enforcement mechanisms were lacking. 
    • It was against this background that the Basel Convention was negotiated in the late 1980s and its thrust at the time of its adoption was to combat the toxic trade”, as it was termed. 
    • The Convention entered into force in 1992.
    • Objectives
      • To protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes
      • Its scope of application covers a wide range of wastes defined as “hazardous wastes” based on their origin and/or composition and their characteristics, as well as two types of wastes defined as “other wastes” – household waste and incinerator ash. 
    • Aims and Provisions: The provisions of the Convention center around the following principal aims
      • Reduction of hazardous waste generation and the promotion of environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, wherever the place of disposal.
      • Restriction of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes except where it is perceived to be in accordance with the principles of environmentally sound management.
      • Regulatory system applying to cases where transboundary movements are permissible.

    Electronic Waste or e-waste 

    • It is the term used to describe old, end-of-life electronic appliances such as computers, laptops, TVs, DVD players, mobile phones, mp3 players, etc. which have been disposed of by their original users.
    • It has been classified into three main categories
      • Large Household Appliances: Refrigerator and washing machine 
      • IT and Telecom: PC, monitor and laptop
      • Consumer Equipment: TV, mobile

    E Waste Coalition

    • In March 2018, at the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) Forum, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and six other United Nations entities signed a Letter of Intent paving the way for greater collaboration in the area of e-waste management in developing a UN e-Waste Coalition
    • Further to this, at the 2019 WSIS Forum, three new UN entities signed the Letter of Intent.
    • The Letter’s aims include a commitment by the signatories to
      • Increase collaboration. 
      • Building partnership.
      • Supporting Member States to address the global WEEE challenge. 
    • In line with these aims, the Coalition comprises the following three core functions:??

    (Image Courtesy: ITU)

    • Goals of Coalition
      • Support countries to reduce and manage WEEE with the aim of creating jobs, while protecting workers, human health and the environment. 
      • Strengthen the capacity of countries to formulate and implement integrated WEEE management policies and practical measures. 
      • Create synergies and add value to existing programmes, partnerships and projects by avoiding duplication of resources and efforts. UN entities to “deliver as one”. 
      • Increase awareness and engagement of key WEEE stakeholders at the global, regional, national and local levels.  
      • Support the development of a circular economy of e-products, using existing international expertise.
      • Prevent illegal trafficking of WEEE via transboundary movements, ensuring it is carried out in line with international requirements.
      • Promote opportunities for non-state actors (e.g. industry) to be part of the solution on WEEE challenges.??

    Reasons for Difficult e-waste Management in India

    • The producers/manufacturers do not have adequate information on their website regarding e waste management.
    • Customer care representatives do not have inkling about any take back or recycling programme and even if they have set up collection centres, they are simply not enough for a geographically vast country like India.
    • India being a vast country, setting up collection mechanisms is a big challenge. If any of the brands try individually to reach out to all corners of the country, it will economically not be sustainable or feasible.
    • Improper enforcement of the existing laws is another hurdle.

    Source: DTE