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E-waste business in Ghana – poor workers dying for a living

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The mostly young men in their early 20s and 30s, including some teenagers who work at the Agbogbloshie scrap yard know the risks of dismantling electronics items, like computers, sound systems, and TV sets to extract the copper wires which they sell to make some money, but  they have no choice. For them it is a matter of survival.

They have an idea of the possible health hazards. But they are unanimous in saying they have no option.

“If we stop, we won’t eat, even though we know it can make us sick,” they say.

Abdul Karim is 21 years old. He left his village Wantogo in the Northern region of Ghana and travelled down to Accra about two years ago, because he has been told there is money to be made from scraps.

When I met him at work, Friday October 5, 2012 at the scrap yard, he was busy burning cables he has removed from PC monitors and a CPU.

The black smoke from the burning fire was thick, smells pungently and suffocating.

“Do you make enough money from this?,” I asked him, “Yes. I do. I will make about GH¢25 from this one I am working on,” he says.

He weighed the copper wires still burning by lifting it with a stick which is torched at the tip and says, roughly they weigh something like five pounds. He sells a pound for GH¢5.

He is not the only one, who believes he could get sick from inhaling the overpowering smoke from the burning cables. Even the ‘buyers’ who buy from the small scale suppliers like Karim are also aware of the possible health hazards associated with e-waste.

Ben Okri, a 35-year-old Nigerian national who works at the scrap yard as a ‘buyer’ also knows that there are possible health dangers in handling e-waste without proper protective clothing, but says, “I have to make a living. I have two children to look after.” But does he have any chance of living long enough if he continues working in the sector to raise his two kids?

The chairman of the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association, Abdulai Abdulrahman 43, also knows of the possible health risks, but does not think stopping the importation of e-waste into Ghana was a good idea.

“If importation of e-waste is stopped, what shall we eat?” He asks.

It’s been five years since I wrote the very first article drawing attention to the e-waste situation in Ghana, but there is no concrete evidence at Agbogboloshie that anything is being done to address the issue. The scrap dealers still process e-waste without protective gear and they still burn wires in naked fire.

An assessment report of the e-waste situation in Ghana published in May 2011 found that 171,000 tons of e-waste reaches the country’s informal recycling sector. It however indicated that the amount of material that reaches the formal recycling sector accounted only for 0.2%.

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

The report was written by Green Ad, a Ghanaian NGO, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Ghana and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (EMPA).

E-waste is known to contain hazardous chemicals including lead and cadmium. These chemicals are not bio-degradable – meaning when they enter the food chain or blood stream, they do not breakdown, and therefore cause some cancers including leukemia.

The only known scientific examination that has been conducted at Agbogbloshie was done by the environmental activist group, Greenpeace.

In 2008, the Greenpeace did a lab test of the soil and water at Agbogbloshie, the results showed that the soil in the area contained toxic chemicals at levels a hundred times more than WHO allowable limits.

Meanwhile, it is not known if a conclusive study has been carried out in Ghana regarding lead poisoning from e-waste. But confirmed information says blood samples have been taken from some of the workers at Agbogbloshie for testing, but the results have never been known.

Abdulrahman says, “some people have been here to take our blood samples but we have never seen a report on them.”

While all the facts are yet to be fully known, most of the people who work at the Agbogbloshie scrap yard, though aware of the health risks associated with handling e-waste improperly continue to work, because they must make a living.

Ghana has no law yet on e-waste.

But the Minister of Environment, Science and Technology, Ms. Sherry Ayittey tells me, the law to regulate e-waste in Ghana is before Parliament. “It will be reviewed at the middle of this month,” she says.

Asked if the Ministry is doing anything concrete to address the issue presently, she says, it’s a multi-sector approach and they are waiting for the law to be passed and then they would start work.

As things stand now, these workers’ fate hangs in the balance. But they must continue to make a living, even if that means they could possibly die from chemical poisoning.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

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