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E-Waste Harmful Effects

Vivek Vichare
March 30, 2010

BTech + MTech (IIT Bombay)

MS (University of Michigan)

E-Waste or electronic waste is an informal term for all the electronic appliances which need to be disposed off due to their non-usability. Their non-usabilitiy could be attributed to number of reasons such as newer upgrade or damage beyond repair or incompatibility with other appliances. Computers, television sets, laptops, cell phones, VCRs, refrigerators, stereos are just few common electronic products that generate e-waste.

In recent years, advances in consumer electronics and personal computers have spurred economic growth, changed information technology and improved people lives in countless ways. However, our growing dependence on electronic products both at home and in the workplace has given rise to a new  hazard: electronic waste. With the rapid growth of technology and shorter product life cycles of electronic products, e-waste is one of the fastest growing segments of our nation's trash. 

Sources of E-waste:

While e-waste contains both valuable materials such as gold, palladium, silver and copper, it also contains harmful substances like lead, cadmium and mercury. In the absence of suitable techniques and protective measures, recycling e-waste can result in toxic emissions to the air, water and soil and pose a serious health and environmental hazard. The main sources of e-waste are:

1. Manufacturers are major contributors of e-waste. The waste consists of defective IC chips, motherboards, CRTs and other peripheral items produced during the production process. It also includes defective PCs under guarantee procured from consumers as replacement items.

2. Consumers who dispose their old appliances. Retailers who buy back second-hand electronics are repair and reuse working parts. The rest is binned and eventually makes its way into the groundwater and soil.

3. Import of e-waste: Import of e-waste is legally prohibited. Nevertheless, there are allegedly reports of e-waste imports from abroad.

Health Hazards due to bad practices:

In India, e-waste is mostly generated in large cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In these cities a complex e-waste handling infra-structure has developed mainly based on a long tradition of waste recycling. Ninety nine per cent of e-waste ends up with this traditional unorganised sector -- waste pickers, local raddiwallas and kabadiwallas. They extract precious metals like copper and silver that can be resold to smelters. Extraction is done by burning the gadget in the open or even boiling it in acid. The acid water and leftovers are then dumped in a landfill or discarded in the open which are extremely harmful and have negative impacts on the workers‘ health and the environment. A study on the burning of printed wiring boards that was conducted 2004 showed an alarming concentration of dioxins in the surrounding areas in which open burning was practiced. These toxins cause an increased risk of cancer if inhaled by workers and local residents or by entering the food chain via crops from the surrounding fields.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that India does not have a clear legislation in place to make it mandatory to recycle and dispose e-waste in an environment-friendly way. In 2009, the Manufacturers Association for Information Technology (MAIT) had estimated that the quantity of e-waste generated in India is 4,00,000 tonnes annually.

The breakdown of e-waste harmful effects is:  

Lead:  Lead is widely used in lead-acid batteries, cable sheathing, in the glass of CRTs, printed circuit boards. Computer monitors contain 6.3% lead. Lead that accumulates in the environment has highly acute and chronic toxic effects on plants, animals and microorganisms.  It tends to be stored primarily in the bones, but is particularly toxic to the reproductive system, nervous system, the blood and the kidneys.  Children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

Cadmium and Mercury: They are used in the production of electrical equipment and found concentrated in batteries, switches and thermostats, and fluorescent lamps.Cadmium can easily be accumulated in the human body due to its long half-life of 30 years.  It tends to accumulate in the kidneys and can be absorbed through respiration or with food and can cause symptoms of poisoning.  It also has the potential to cause harmful effects to the environment due to its high toxicity. Mercury can cause chronic damage to the human brain and may be concentrated in the food chain via fish that have accumulated mercury that spread into the water supply.

Arsenic:  It is used in circuit boards, LCDs and computer chips, it can cause skin diseases, digestive problems and decrease nerve conduction velocity.

Possible Symptoms Associated with E-waste:

·        Brain damage

·        Decreased growth

·        Hyperactivity

·        Impaired hearing

·        Disorders of the reproductive and nervous systems

·        Blood and kidney disorders

·        Symptoms of poisoning

·        Physical weakness

·        Strong allergic reactions

·        Asthmatic bronchitis

·        DNA damage

·        Neurotoxic effects in children

·        Endocrine and hormone disorders

·        Increased risk of digestive and lymph system cancers

What can we do:

It is our duty to properly dispose the e-waste. We must use the electronic products carefully so as to prolong the life of the equipment. The richer class should try not to upgrade or buy new gadgets unless it is becomes absolutely necessary to do so. As a responsible citizen, we must be fully informed on what happens to the items we dispose by questioning our scrap dealers. Because scrap dealers, raddiwaalas, second hand retailers have formed a vicious chain in which ultimately the e-waste is dumped unsafely.

In addition, there are number of e-waste management units set up in major cities. As individual and responsible consumers, we must try to get as much information about these units and send our disposable e-waste to these units. It is commendable that companies like LG, Nokia, HCL are doing their bit inorder to prevent e-waste. For example, Nokia has a drop-box for phones, chargers and batteries, irrespective of the brand into over 1,300 recycling points at Nokia Care Centres or Priority Dealers across India, where they are recycled properly. They pledge also to plant a sapling for every handset collected.

So friends, be careful the next time when you dump a dead phone or scrap off a damaged PC. You are putting your own health at stake.


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