UK authorities shelve report on e-waste dumping in Ghana

It is unbelievable that British government authorities are shelving the outcome of an investigation into allegations of e-waste dumping into Ghana by some British companies.

The Environment Agency (EA) of the UK confirmed to me in October 2008 that indeed an investigation into the illegal dumping of e-waste into Ghana by some British companies had been initiated.

In May 2010, in response to enquiries the EA told that it’s investigation team had completed its work and the report was with their lawyers.

“Our officers have now completed their investigations and their findings are now with lawyers for consideration,” Scarlett Elworthy, an official of the EA wrote.

After this communication, all our enquiries about the matter have been ignored by the EA. In failing to make public the findings of such an important investigation, we can only conclude that the EA is shelving the report.

The dangers posed to both human health and the environment of Ghana by the toxic chemicals contained in e-waste are well known by now.

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).

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.

British news organization had published reports of the criminal acts by some British companies that are paid with tax payers’ money to recycle obsolete electronics equipment under scientifically approved safe methods, but they instead connive with others and ship these items containing dangerous chemical to other developing countries including Ghana.

The Independent, a UK publication for instance published a report based on investigations it conducted which revealed that toxic wastes from the UK continue to be dumped in Ghana and Nigeria.

The report said tonnes of toxic waste collected from British municipal dumps are being sent illegally to Africa in flagrant breach of the country’s obligation to ensure its rapidly growing mountain of defunct televisions, computers and gadgets are disposed of safely.

Hundreds of thousands of discarded items, which under British law must be dismantled or recycled by specialist contractors, are being packaged into cargo containers and shipped to countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, where they are stripped of their raw metals by young men and children working on poisoned waste dumps, the report said.

Some of the damaged computers found at the Agbogbloshie dump site in Accra had NHS labels on them. Other PCs were found to have been the property of UK councils and universities, including Kent County Council, Southampton County Council, Salford University and Richmond upon Thames College.

When the overwhelming evidence was put before the UK government  showing that the UK is a regular source of the e-waste that comes to Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria, the UK government admitted in September 2009 that it is unable to stop the practice “because of the exponential surge in volumes of incorrectly classified waste being exported,” according to the Computer Weekly.

It is known that 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated in the world annually and a great amount of that ends up in developing countries including Ghana and Nigeria.

Britain is responsible for around 15% of the EU’s total e-waste, which is growing three times faster than any other municipal waste stream.

It is worrying that the UK authorities would treat such matter in the manner that they are doing. It is the responsibility of the EA to make the findings of its investigations, what it might have found public.

Besides, since this situation is almost taking human rights dimensions, it is necessary to know what steps the UK government is taking to halt this inhuman act that is being perpetrated by its citizens on the people of Ghana.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Email: [email protected]

  1. Biko says

    This is wicked and totally unjust. Why do lawmakers and those in government who can make difference feel that the life of Ghanaians are not worth anything. When will we love our own?

  2. NOODLES onlus says

    Sorry, something wrong in the first link given !!look here:

    Diagnostic health risk assessment of electronic waste on the general population!/note.php?note_id=133635646652662

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