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Children on the Frontlines: The e-waste epidemic in Africa

boy-pushes-cartA boy pushing a shopping cart load of wires going for burning in the Agbogbloshie ghetto in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Kwei Quartey.

Children on the Frontlines: The e-waste epidemic in Africa

In Agbogbloshie, a slum outside the capital city of Accra, Ghana, tons of electronic waste lies smoldering in toxic piles.

Children make their way through this dangerous environment, desperate to strip even a few ounces of copper, aluminum, brass, and zinc from worn-out electronics originating from the United States and Europe.

"The smell alone will drive all but the most desperate away, but many are so desperate they persevere despite the obvious dangers. It is a very tough thing to witness," explains Dr. Kwei Quartey, a Ghanaian author and physician, in a recent mongabay.com interview.

Electronic waste (e-waste), or worn-out electrical equipment, includes television sets, computers, phones, personal electronic devices, and refrigerators.

According to Deborah McGrath, a Biology professor at Sewanee: the University of the South with expertise in biogeochemistry, nearly three percent of e-waste is composed of toxins including lead, arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and mercury. Mercury and lead are particularly dangerous neurotoxins that bioaccumulate in children's bodies over time.

These children are at grave risk. According to Professor McGrath, they may suffer from brain and kidney damage, respiratory illness, developmental and behavioral disorders, and eventually cancer. Acute or chronic exposure to toxic e-waste can be fatal. E-waste recyclers are chronically exposed to these neurotoxins and carcinogens directly through dermal contact and inhalation and indirectly through contaminated food and water.

E-waste also pollutes the environment, causing further damage to communities near dumpsites, explains McGrath. Heavy metals, including chromium, cadmium, lead, zinc, and nickel, leach from waste sites and contaminate local water supplies. If burned, the discarded electronics release dioxins— and toxic particles in smoky ash are inhaled easily by children.

Yet the solution to this e-waste epidemic is complicated by efforts to bring computers to Ghana’s citizens.

Readers' Note: The Basel Action Network (BAN), which works to implement the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (1989) and the Basel Ban (1994), launched the e-Stewards Certification Program in 2008. Unlike the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) responsible recycling practices (R2), e-Stewards prohibits the export of toxic e-waste to developing countries and adheres to the Basel Convention. E-Stewards recyclers use best practices in their recycling operations: they do not export to poor communities, use prison labor, or dispose of toxic waste in landfills or using incinerators.

INTERVIEW WITH DR. KWEI QUARTEY

Dr. Kwei QuarteyDr. Kwei Quartey, is a Ghanaian author and physician who was born and raised in Accra "before this ghetto became the de facto dumping ground for the west's electronic waste."

In his latest novel Children of the Street he featured the waste dump at Agbogbloshie, "Because it needs more attention— not less."

In June he visited Agbogbloshie and met many of the children.

"They kids with wisdom beyond their years. You can see it in their eyes. Yet they laugh like children all over the world. Their resilience is remarkable."

"Children anywhere in the world are more vulnerable to any poison, contaminant or toxin because of their rapidly developing organs," Quartey explains. "Pound for pound, they drink more fluid and breathe more air than adults. Children have about eight times the risk of adults when exposed to metal-laden dust, and blood measurements in children living around e-waste sites have shown high levels of cadmium and lead." Quartey adds that pregnant women are also especially susceptible to these contaminants.

"The Ghanaian government is in something of a dilemma. It is committed to accelerated development of the country through Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and second-hand EEE (electrical and electronic equipment) is an important part of the plan because it makes computers affordable to individuals and institutions. WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) is a catastrophe of one kind, but banning WEEE would be a catastrophe of another, not only by disrupting availability of EEE, but by setting up a new illegal market for the stuff. Ghana is already contending with illicit drug trafficking. It doesn’t need yet another illegal market" 

ewaste-trashpileSheer volume & density of trash is staggering. Photo: Kwei Quartey | Mongabay.com.

Mongabay: What is your background, and how did you become involved in Agbogbloshie?

Kwei Quartey: I’m a physician and novelist. My latest novel Children of the Street is set in Accra and has important scenes taking place in Agbogbloshie. In order to write well about it, I needed to experience it firsthand.

Mongabay: What motivated you to spend time with these threatened children?

Kwei Quartey: Originally, I went to Agbogbloshie to research my novel, but for a while I forgot about the novel as I met people there. I didn’t know a lot about Agbogbloshie on my first visit, but I was compelled to learn more about it. Frankly, I was stunned and in a way fascinated by the process of burning plastic and wires that the boys carry out. The dense smoke generated is really noxious. It had a ghastly smell and stung my eyes, nose and throat. But as my impromptu guide Issifu showed me, there was more to these boys’ lives than met the eye. As tough as they are, they have their emotional vulnerabilities, compelling backgrounds and all too human aspirations. It is heartbreaking and disgraceful that they are child laborers instead of being in school.

Mongabay: What is e-waste, and why is it so dangerous?

Kwei Quartey: Electronic waste, or e-waste, also known as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is obsolete electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). It includes computers, televisions, mobile phones, printers, and larger items like air-conditioners and refrigerators. The components of the WEEE make it dangerous. For example, computers contain toxins including but not limited to:

  • Dioxins—thyroid problems, damage to the immune and central nervous (CNS) systems.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, used in coolant fluids)—endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity.
  • Cadmium—metal fume fever, lung inflammation and excess fluid in the lungs, death.
  • Mercury (in batteries)—chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, CNS dysfunction.
  • Lead (in the cathode ray tube)—blood disorders, damage to the nervous system, kidneys and brain.
Mongabay: Born and raised in Accra, you were familiar with the Agbogbloshie slum before it became a dumping ground for toxic waste. When did toxic waste begin arriving in Agbogbloshie, and how has its presence changed the community?

Kwei Quartey: WEEE recycling activities started about ten years ago. Not a lovely place to look at in the first place, Agbogbloshie has deteriorated into a ghastly wasteland. It lies along the banks of the Odaw River and the Agbogbloshie Channel near the Korle Lagoon, none of which supports any life, except of course bacteria. Everywhere along the banks, gusts of dense, tarry smoke rise in the air as TVs and other equipment are burned to get at the stuff inside. The onslaught of WEEE has helped to increase the population density in the slum. Child labor has risen as more and more youngsters get involved in the WEEE business.

Mongabay: Why are children the primary victims of toxic waste exposure?

Kwei Quartey: Children anywhere in the world are more vulnerable to any poison, contaminant or toxin because of their rapidly developing organs. Pound for pound, they drink more fluid and breathe more air than adults. Children have about eight times the risk of adults when exposed to metal-laden dust, and blood measurements in children living around e-waste sites have shown high levels of cadmium and lead. Since pregnant women are also very susceptible to PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl esters), placental transfer of these toxins to the fetus in utero is a risk. In addition, there are high levels of PCBs and PBDEs (brominated flame retardants) in human breast milk in women who live in environments like Agbogbloshie. Lastly, there’s one well-known characteristic of children that puts them at higher risk: they spend a lot of time on the floor or ground, and they put lots of things in their mouths.

Mongabay: Who buys the metals the children salvage, and at what prices?

Kwei Quartey: The children salvage primarily copper and aluminum from TVs and computers. They take what they have to specific dealers in Accra who weigh the metal. Copper is valuable. I’ve heard different quotes on the rates – anything from about 30 to 90 cents a pound. Recyclers earn about $6 to 10 a day, although there may be days that they earn nothing at all.

Mongabay: How much do the children who strip metal from e-waste rely on their meager earnings?

Kwei Quartey: Many of them are fending for themselves, or they may team up with other boys to provide each other support. Although I don’t have numbers, I imagine that some kids are “part-time” recyclers while others are full-time. There are other possible jobs that some of them may be able to perform in the neighborhood. For instance, auto dismantling is another job along the same lines, and I have seen truck-pushers transporting engine blocks or entire car chassis across town. There are the timber and tomato markets nearby. Children can act as assistants to the market women.

Mongabay: What alternative options, if any, exist for these children?

Kwei Quartey: Many come from Northern Ghana, trying to escape poverty, maltreatment, food insecurity, and sectarian strife. Returning home is seldom an option. NGOs may offer opportunities and training in areas like carpentry to give kids an outlet, but the jobs available to these children are limited.

Boys burning wasterBoys burning waste
Mongabay: How has exposure to toxic waste affected the children of Agbogbloshie?

Kwei Quartey: Run by the Ghana Health Service, Green Advocacy Ghana and others, there’s a current study in which blood and urine samples are being taken from volunteers in scrap yards. Obviously we’re waiting for those numbers, but just anecdotally boys who recycle WEEE have told me that they feel dizzy and have pounding headaches by the end of the day.

Michael Anane, a well-known Accra journalist who has been writing about e-waste for years, has stories of children being short of breath and coughing up blood, which would be consistent with the known effects of some of the toxins to which the children are exposed. In some ways, we don’t even need to reinvent the wheel. We already know, for example, that lead poisoning can cause mental disability in children.

It’s very concerning that dust containing PBDEs and metals can be blown over to areas remote from the WEEE recycling site, for instance to the tomato and onion markets of Agbogbloshie. One last thing to be borne in mind is that toxic exposure and the cramped living conditions of Agbogbloshie can make children more susceptible to infectious diseases like malaria, which remains a major killer of children worldwide.

Mongabay: Where does this toxic waste come from, and can you explain the process by which the toxic waste arrives and is dumped in Agbogbloshie?

Kwei Quartey: Strict domestic environmental standards in industrialized states has made legal domestic disposal of WEEE expensive. For companies and corporations whose priority is to make as much profit as possible, one solution is to transfer (export) the pollution source and thereby limit disposal costs in the home country. Your question might imply to readers that the toxic waste somehow arrives in Ghana in its pure form – like vats of mercury or cadmium, so to speak - and proceeds straight to Agbogbloshie to be dumped, but that’s not the way it works. There are several steps that take place before that:

1) Ghana imports electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) from industrialized countries. Some importers may actually reside in the sending country, e.g. UK or Germany. There is no import duty paid on computers and accessories, as the government wants to ensure that such EEE are made available to Ghanaians to help improve the computer literacy rate. Importers only pay Value Added Tax (VAT) and other levies.

2) Up to 70% of all imported EEE are second-hand products. Sixty to 70% of those are in working order, 20-30% can be repaired to get them working again, and 10-20% cannot be used at all except for providing spare parts. Ghanaians want electronic and electrical goods in increasing numbers. There is a huge market for second-hand products, which can be sold at relatively low prices. Eighty-five percent of second hand EEE imported to Ghana comes from the EU, 8% from the US & Canada, 4% from Asia, the rest from other countries. There are two basic types of importers in Ghana; formal business importers, and small-scale/informal importers. The large/formal importers buy directly from the manufacturers of brand new items and from different sources, e.g. the US army, federal institutions and private companies, and auction sales. Some second-hand EEE from the Netherlands, Germany, UK, Belgium, USA and Canada are tested and arrive with a seal indicating that they work satisfactorily.

3) Equipment that doesn’t work at all may be stored for spare parts by Ghanaian second-hand dealers, but most of it eventually goes to “informal recyclers,” and a much smaller portion to official landfills that are typically poorly engineered. Informal recyclers are the people that dismantle the equipment at junkyards and other designated sites, and Agbogbloshie is easily the main hotspot in Ghana where this occurs, although there are others.

4) Equipment repaired and subsequently sold has a short lifespan of two or three years, and then the consumer who bought it has to decide what to do with it. Consumers include the individual, institutions, and government agencies. Again, some store the non-working stuff somewhere and/or get them to an informal recycler. Not usually directly, though. Consumers use scavengers and informal collectors as middlemen, some of whom go door-to-door. This explains the ubiquitous “truck-pushers” you see in Accra and other cities - pairs of guys who push 4-wheeled carts back and forth through town loaded with scrap.

5) Consumers get cash for the WEEE from the collectors, who are in turn paid by the recyclers for the number of pieces produced. The WEEE industry in Ghana is lively. A socioeconomic study found that it supports between 121,800 to 201,600 people in Ghana and indirectly contributes $105 to $268 million to Ghana’s GDP.

6) Eventually even the new equipment becomes inoperable and/or out of date, and follows the path outlined above.

7) The informal recyclers in Agbogbloshie dismantle the WEEE that they get from the collectors, and sort it into non-valuable and valuable parts. The latter are sold to dealers who either sell the material to local industries or export it. The non-valuable parts are dumped on land, which leads to leaching of chemical substances into the soil, or thrown in the Odaw/Agbogbloshie Channels, or burned to reduce the volume of junk. The burning releases particles and toxic substances into the air.

Mongabay: What is the Ghanaian government doing to address the toxic e-waste threat to children in Agbogbloshie?

Kwei Quartey: Ghana’s government is considering a ban on EEE that is older than five years. The 1992 Constitution of Ghana contains measures to protect the environment and there are regulations and laws that apply to management of hazardous waste including WEEE, but they don’t address specifically the dangers of these materials to the environment and to humans. Incinerators and well-engineered landfills are not available in developing countries like Ghana and Nigeria. The government is in something of a dilemma. It is committed to accelerated development of the country through Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and second-hand EEE is an important part of the plan because it makes computers affordable to individuals and institutions. WEEE is a catastrophe of one kind, but banning WEEE would be a catastrophe of another, not only by disrupting availability of EEE, but by setting up a new illegal market for the stuff. Ghana is already contending with illicit drug trafficking. It doesn’t need yet another illegal market.

Mongabay: Does the Ghanaian government give permission for e-waste to be dumped in Ghana?

Kwei Quartey: There’s neither outright permission for nor enforced prohibition of e-waste dumping. It’s one of those “look the other way” situations. The very governmental policy of an ICT-driven development of the country is part of what is generating e-waste. Ghana has an unregulated import policy for second-hand EEE, so even non-functioning EEE is able to enter the ports, primarily Tema.

Mongabay: Why do you think Ghana has been targeted as a dumping site for toxic waste?

Kwei Quartey: Ghana is not the only sub-Saharan African country “targeted.” That said, the port at Tema is an excellent trading location. Ghana has political stability and a good business climate in which both formal and informal businesses show extraordinary innovation and the ability to get around obstacles. Ghanaians love gadgets and equipment like mobile phones just as Americans do, and laptops are now a status symbol (along with SUVs). The computer is at the heart of growing sophistication as the middle class begins to swell, but all social levels in the country enjoy and use second-hand EEE. Appetite for EEE is what makes Ghana vulnerable to receiving bad stuff mixed in with the good. The government’s policy on ICT and the market for current information and digital products are hand-in-hand factors driving both high EEE import and generation of e-waste.

Mongabay: Is the Ghanaian government doing enough to prevent dumping and to minimize children's exposure?

Kwei Quartey: Recycling e-waste is a relatively new industry that has been so accelerated that, from what I can see, the government has never gotten a hold of it. Proper recycling facilities don’t exist. The informal recyclers don’t pressure policy-makers, or if they do, it’s not enough. There are no clear regulations defining, restricting or prohibiting hazardous e-waste disposal. Burning of these materials in particular is very dismaying because second-hand inhalation affects people who are remote from the junkyard sites and not even involved in the recycling. Clearly this just can’t continue, but is the government up to tackling it? It will involve a concerted, step-by-step process involving all sectors including informal collectors, recyclers and refurbishers.

Mongabay: Are there any international or local programs or projects either assisting these vulnerable children or working to stop e-waste dumping?

Kwei Quartey: There are multiple organizations involved in the study and resolution of this problem: Green Advocacy Ghana, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Ghana, United Nations Environment Program, Accra Metropolitan Assembly, Korle Lagoon Ecological and Restoration Project, and others. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like The Lifeline Street Project, Catholic Action for Street Children assist some of these children among a broader group of deprived kids, but I don’t have any hard figures on what proportion are WEEE recyclers. There are probably several NGOs that I don’t know about.

Discarded-electronicsPiles of discarded TV carcasses and a CRT. Photo: Kwei Quartey.

 

Mongabay: What can consumers of electronics in the U.S. and Europe do to ensure their used electronics do not end up in the hands of children in Agbogbloshie or other communities in the developing world?

Kwei Quartey: Like anything else, consumers have to speak up to their representatives and make people aware of the problem through organizations, social networks, and so on. In June of 2011, US Representatives Gene Green (D-TX) and Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced new legislation – the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2011, to stop sham U.S. “recyclers” from dumping electronic waste on developing countries and to promote recycling jobs at home. The bill is supported by environmental groups as well as electronic manufacturers (Dell, HP, Samsung, Apple, and Best Buy).

Mongabay: Are companies that produce electronics part of the problem, and can they be part of a solution?

Kwei Quartey: They could be. One way is to reduce the levels of hazardous and toxic substances used to make EEE. Obviously that won’t be completely sufficient. Some companies like Apple have signed onto recycling and ‘producer take-back schemes’ in which WEEE gets sent from importers back to the exporters. But as you can imagine, there are loopholes, cracks in the system, whatever you want to call it, that make these measures far less than failsafe. Asking manufacturers to voluntarily take the lead in solving the problem seems unlikely to succeed. Most will need strong regulations and penalties before they take notice.

The trash nightmare of the Agbogbloshie Channel, which joins the Odaw Channel farther up. Photo: Kwei Quartey.The trash nightmare of the Agbogbloshie Channel, which joins the Odaw Channel farther up. Photo: Kwei Quartey.

~

About Mongabay.com

With more than one million unique visitors per month, Mongabay.com is one of the world's most popular environmental science and conservation news sites.

The news and rainforests sections of the site are widely cited for information on tropical forests, conservation, and wildlife.

Mongabay.com aims to raise interest in wildlife and wildlands while promoting awareness of environmental issues. Originally the site was based around a text on tropical rainforests written by Rhett A. Butler, but today the site has expanded to other topics (like Madagascar [WildMadagasacar.org]) and is available in versions for kids and in more than two dozen non-English languages. Mongabay.com is also publisher of Tropical Conservation Science, a peer-reviewed, open-access academic journal that seeks to provide opportunities for scientists in developing countries to publish their research in their native languages.

Mongabay.com has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and other local, national and international publications.

The Founder

Rhett ButlerMongabay.com was founded in 1999 by Rhett A. Butler. Rhett writes most of the content and takes most of the photos that appear on the site

Beyond mongabay.com, Rhett Butler runs WildMadagascar.org, a site that highlights the spectacular cultural and biological richness of Madagascar and reports on environmental news for the Indian Ocean island nation.

Rhett Butler is also co-founder of Tropical Conservation Science, an open-access academic journal that aims to provide opportunities for scientists in developing countries to publish their research, and the Tropical Forest Network, a social network in the San Francisco Bay Area broadly interested in tropical forest conservation and ecology.

Rhett can be contacted via email here.