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Slow but sure: the life-threatening consequences of e-waste in the world’s most toxic city Featured

By Priscilla Owusu February 09, 2020 1404 29 comments

Ghana, a country with a culture of poor waste management and home to some of the dirtiest places on Earth, has also become a hub for electronic waste from Europe and America over the years.

The unbalanced ratio of the 8,000-plus metric tonnes of waste generated daily to the few hundred waste management agencies and companies which can handle this waste has contributed significantly to environmental and health hazards in the country. In 2012, the World Bank estimated that poor sanitation was costing the Ghanaian economy roughly GHC420 million (US$290 million) each year, equivalent to 1.6 per cent of GDP. The study found that much of the cost springs from the premature deaths of 19,000 Ghanaians annually – largely due to poor sanitation and hygiene.

While general waste management is a matter of concern to many Ghanaians and organisations, little is known about the ever-growing volume of e-waste exported to the country and the problem has reached tipping point.

Increasing need

Electronic waste is growing three times faster than ordinary waste in industrialised countries because of the fast pace of technological innovation and the consequent short life of many electronic products. Up to 50 million tonnes of e-waste, containing hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury, are generated worldwide every year. A vast portion of this deadly waste is exported illegally to developing countries across Africa and Asia, including Ghana.

In Ghana, on arrival at Tema Harbour, hundreds of containers of used or “second-hand” electronic gadgets are found to be out of date and end up being sent to the Agbogbloshie dump, a roughly 20-acre scrapyard.

As global demand for electronic equipment increases, with consumers continually upgrading their devices, the Agbogbloshie dump has not only become the world’s largest destination for used electronics, but also the most toxic place in the world.

The inhabitants

Only 20 per cent of the 50 million tonnes of e-waste generated yearly is recycled properly, as a significant proportion is disposed of by informal workers in places such as Agbogbloshie.

“When I was a small boy, I used to be a footballer, but not any more,” Abdullah Boubacar told a reporter. Boubacar, a 28-year-old who moved to Accra from Tamale in northern Ghana in 2008, is one of many who have given up their dreams to earn insufficiently in Agbogbloshie, and suffers for it. “I have stomach ulcers and I run out of energy very easily,” he says.

Like many other young men who live here, Boubacar smashes old computers and televisions in search of valuable parts and burns insulated cables to recover copper.

The workers suffer from many ailments from working in the scrapyard, including cuts, stomach ulcers, burns and severe respiratory diseases, but they are not the only ones who are at the mercy of harsh environmental conditions and disease.

In total, roughly 80,000 men, women and children survive by living on the Agbogbloshie dump, living either on-site or in the adjacent slum. They are among the poorest of Accra’s 1.7 million inhabitants, many of whom come from the northern regions of Ghana and neighbouring countries such as Mali, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire.

The children have it worse, because they are vulnerable to the health risks which may result from exposure to e-waste and, therefore, need more specific protection. As the children are still growing, their intake of air, water and food in proportion to their weight is significantly large compared to that for adults – and with that, the risk of absorbing hazardous chemicals. Furthermore, their functional systems, such as their central nervous, immune, reproductive and digestive systems, are still developing and their exposure to toxic substances may cause irreversible damage by hampering their further development.

Many children are exposed to e-waste-derived chemicals every day through unsafe recycling activities, often carried out at home, either by family members or by the children themselves.

Absorbing cancers

Research says these health risks are also entering the food chain.

The Agbogbloshie area is home to one of the largest food markets in Accra. One-third of the city’s street food vendors pick up their produce from its market.

A report by the environmental groups Ipen and Basel Action Network found that Agbogbloshie contained some of the most hazardous chemicals on Earth. “One egg hatched by a free-range chicken in Agbogbloshie exceeded European Food Safety Authority limits on chlorinated dioxins, which can cause cancer and damage the immune system, 220 times over,” it said.

And with livestock roaming freely and grazing on the dumpsite, the report shows that the average Ghanaian may only be taking in cancer- and other disease-causing organisms.

In addition to the effects on food consumed, studies show that health-damaging exposure to e-waste can result in long-term, often irreversible problems such as infertility, miscarriage, tumours, endocrine disease and birth defects.

Computers and most electronics contain toxic materials such as lead, zinc, nickel, flame retardants, barium and chromium. Specifically with lead, if released into the environment the chemical can cause damage to the human blood, the kidneys, as well as the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Climate change?

At Agbogbloshie, the fastest and easiest way to recycle e-waste is to burn it. When e-waste is warmed up, toxic chemicals are released into the air, poisoning the atmosphere. Atmospheric damage is one of the biggest environmental impacts from e-waste.

Although there are many underlying causes of climate change, smoke released from burning e-waste goes a long way to affect the climate.

E-waste disposal contributes to climate change through the chemicals released when it is burned. Electronics contain materials such as copper, aluminium and iron, and when burned these metals accumulate in the air. Harmful chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) are the principal toxins released when electronics are burned. PBDEs are used as flame retardants in electronics, and during combustion they release carbon dioxide.

Collectively, when burned, these various chemicals cause harm both to human beings, by making the air harmful, and to the climate.

Changes in climate have attendant problems – from unpredictable and increasing patterns of precipitation to flooding and, in some cases, drought, rising sea temperatures, an increment in intensity of atmospheric temperature and earthquakes in places in Ghana that lie between fault zones.

We may not be experiencing the health and environmental impact of improper recycling of e-waste in Ghana on a large scale, but the effects are looming. Talking about the problem may not be enough, especially when Ghanaians have become accustomed to the stench, thick smoke and environmental challenge of e-waste from the Agbogbloshie dump.

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Last modified on Sunday, 09 February 2020 21:49

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