Ghana spends $760m on malaria annually, how about effects of e-waste?

E-waste in Ghana
E-waste in Ghana

Ghana’s Minister of Health, Dr. George Sipa-Adjah Yankey has said the government of Ghana spends over $760 million every year treating malaria.

He said these when he addressed the 74th Annual Conference of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana (PSG).

Dr. Yankey regretted that despite this huge expenditure people, still die of the disease.

This revelation is as worrying as it is instructive. Certainly, for a developing country that is working hard to get itself out of poverty, spending more than $760 million every year to treat malaria is worrying.

The amount used in treating malaria is almost the entire budget for the health sector. In the 2009 budget an amount of over GH¢921 million was allocated for the health sector. What that means is that very little is left of the budget to treat other diseases.

While we are at it, the country is facing a grave situation of e-waste dumping. Recycling companies and individuals in America and Europe have turned Ghana into a dumping ground for their electronics waste, as mounting evidence continues to show.

E-waste comes along with serious consequences for human health and the environment, because e-waste contains a cocktail of poisonous chemicals that dispose humans to dangerous diseases that, obviously, the country lacks the financial and even medical capacity to handle.

Dangerous chemicals in e-waste

E-waste is known to contain dangerous chemical pollutants that are released into the atmosphere and underground water.

The modes of disposal, which include dumping old gadgets into landfills or burning in smelters, also expose the environment and humans to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poison.

These chemicals contain substances like lead, mercury and arsenic.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in most computer monitors and television screens have x-ray shields that contain 4 to 8 pounds of lead, mostly embedded in glass.

Flat screen monitors that are mostly used in laptops do not contain high concentrations of lead, but most are illuminated with fluorescent lights that contain some mercury.

A PC’s central processing unit (CPU), the module containing the chip and the hard disk, typically contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury (in switches), lead (in solder on circuit boards), and cadmium (in batteries).

Diseases the chemicals in e-waste could cause

Plastics used to house computer equipment and cover wire cables to prevent flammability often contain polybrominated flame retardants, a class of dangerous chemicals. Studies have shown that ingesting these substances may increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, and immune system dysfunction.

Lead, mercury, cadmium, and polybrominated flame retardants are all persistent, bio-accumulative toxins (PBTs), that can create environmental and health risks when computers are manufactured, incinerated, landfilled or melted during recycling. PBTs, in particular are a dangerous class of chemicals that linger in the environment and accumulate in living tissues.

And because they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, PBTs can reach dangerous levels in living organisms, even when released in minute quantities. PBTs are harmful to human health and the environment and have been associated with cancer, nerve damage and reproductive disorders.

Looked at individually, the chemicals contained in e-waste are a cocktail of dangerous pollutants that kill both the environment and humans slowly.

Lead, which negative effects were recognized and therefore banned from gasoline in the 1970s causes damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and the reproductive system in humans.

Effects of lead on the endocrine system have been observed, including the serious negative effects it has on children’s brain development. When it accumulates in the environment, it has high acute and chronic effects on plants, animals and micro-organisms.

Cadmium compounds are also toxic with a possible risk of irreversible effects on human health and accumulate in the human body, particularly the kidneys. Cadmium occurs in certain components such as SMD chip resistors, infra-red detectors, and semi-conductor chips.

Mercury on the other hand, can cause damage to various organs including the brain and kidneys as well as the fetus. More especially, the developing fetus is highly susceptible through maternal exposure to mercury.

These are only few of the chemicals used in the manufacture of electronics equipment. Other chemicals are Hexavalent Chromium which is used as a corrosion protection of untreated and galvanized steel plates and as a decorative or hardener for steel housings. Plastics including, PVC are also used. Plastics constitute about 13.8 pounds of an average computer.

The largest volume of plastics, 26% used in electronics is PVC. When PVC is burned, dioxin can be formed because it contains chlorine compounds. Barium, is a soft silvery-white metal that is used in computers in the front panel of a CRT, to protect users from radiation.

Studies have shown that short-term exposure to barium has caused brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the liver, heart and spleen.

Considering the health hazards of e-waste, another ubiquitous computer peripheral scrap worth mentioning is toners. The main ingredient of the black toner is a pigment commonly called, carbon black – the general term used to describe the commercial powder form of carbon.

Inhalation is the primary means of exposure, and acute exposure may lead to respiratory tract irritation.

Looking at the country’s entire budget for the health sector, and the fact that malaria treatment alone takes almost all of it, it is important that the government takes an urgent step to address the e-waste problem, because it would be a disaster if the side effects on humans as indicated begin to take their toll on Ghanaians.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Email: [email protected]

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