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CHINA: E-waste Processing Poisons Health, Environment

Michael Standaert

GUIYU, China, May 2 2010 (IPS) - Like many who have profited from the electronic waste trade in this southern Chinese town, hospital administrator Lin Banghong does not live there. “I’ve worked here 10 years and haven’t gotten sick,” he said.

At a makeshift e-waste workshop in China's Guiyu town, a migrant worker cooks computer motherboards over solder to remove chips and valuable metals. Credit: Jeffrey Lau/IPS

At a makeshift e-waste workshop in China's Guiyu town, a migrant worker cooks computer motherboards over solder to remove chips and valuable metals. Credit: Jeffrey Lau/IPS

Lin, who lives in the nearby city of Shantou like most of the hospital board members, also helps run the e-waste wholesale market in the centre of town owned by the head of Yaohui Hospital. The private hospital, one of only two hospitals in this town of 130,000 people, is named after an e-waste tycoon who donated the money to build it.

For migrant workers who come from across China to burn, smash and strip old television sets, computers, mobile phones and copy machines for their valuable metals and computer chips for one dollar an hour, 10 hours a day in the 5,000-plus workshops in the village, living here is no luxury.

The price they may be paying is their long-term health, say Chinese researchers.

The world’s highest levels of dioxin – environmental pollutants that threaten human health – have been recorded in Guiyu and are released into the air by burning of plastics and circuit boards coated with flame retardants to extract gold, platinum, copper and other metals, a 2007 report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found.

The main source of pollution is the burning of plastics in long blockhouses to retrieve metals. It also comes from heating circuit boards over molten solder to remove chips and metals in the hundreds of small, family-run workshops scattered around Guiyu.


The Lianjiang River running through Guiyu is classified as the most polluted in China’s southern Guangdong province. High levels of copper, nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic have been found in both surface water and sediment in the river.

A United Nations Environment Programme report released on Feb. 22 says that China generates 2.3 million metric tonnes of electronic waste each year domestically, second only to the United States, which produces 3 million tonnes.

Much of that U.S. waste ends up being exported to developing countries like China, where imports of electronic waste are banned but not enforced, says Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network. About 1.7 million tonnes of e-waste are processed each year in Guiyu, says the local government.

Puckett says most of what comes into Guiyu is imported from abroad. “There’s no hard data, but it’s probably above 90 to 95 percent (overseas waste),” says Puckett, who has visited Guiyu three times since 2001. “I really looked at the writing on the machines and types of plugs. Guiyu doesn’t get a lot of Chinese waste.” Recently published studies by researchers at Shantou University Medical College show high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) from flame retardants, lead, cadmium and chromium in blood samples of infant children of e-waste workers.

A 2008 study produced by the Shantou health researchers found that 81 percent of blood samples from Guiyu infants has “significantly higher levels of blood lead.” Another 2008 study found high cadmium levels in 20.1 percent of infants there. High chromium exposure leads to DNA damage in infants.

The research indicates that these are leading to stillbirths, low birth weights and premature deliveries and impacts on the children’s growth rates and neurobehavioural development.

Arlene Blum, an expert on the health effects of chemicals in flame retardants at the University of California Berkeley in the United States, says PBDEs have been associated with cancer, thyroid effects, learning and memory problems, decreased sperm quality and reduced male hormone levels.

Little is known about the health impact of e-waste processing on adults toiling in the workshops of Guiyu.

Huo Xia, head of the research team at Shantou University, says that the bosses at the e-waste workshops resist having workers take blood tests. “The workshops are attached to private homes, so it makes it hard to get in,” says Huo, whose research is now being funded by the U.S. Ford Motor Co, in an interview. “The workers who come here are temporary, and once they get sick, they go back to their villages. It’s hard to track them.”

Lin says that there are “more newborns with cerebral palsy and more cases of cancer” in Guiyu, “but we can’t guarantee these are caused by pollution. None of the tests absolutely confirm the relationship between these diseases and pollution.”

It has become harder for Huo and her researchers to obtain blood samples of migrant workers’ infants in Guiyu, now that Lin’s hospital has stopped allowing the sampling because it “makes a lot of work for us”.

It was unclear if the hassle over collecting and storing samples was the real problem for Lin and the hospital board. “We are worried our support for the research will attract the attention of the local government,” he admits. “We are a private hospital and don’t want to get into any trouble.”

With new national regulations on e-waste processing set to come into effect in 2011, Guiyu’s government made plans in 2006 to turn it into a high- technology, environmentally friendly industry.

But the risky way of recycling may not go away so easily. “China is never going to be able to properly manage their e-waste as long as they allow this massive magnet of Guiyu to exist,” says Puckett.

 
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