By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

There is presently no direct evidence to show that e-waste related diseases are increasing in Ghana, because no such study has been done.

But from the scientific evidences available in other parts of the world, the probability that e-waste could be a large contributing factor to some illnesses in Ghana is high.

Indeed, the issue of e-waste has not attracted any serious concern yet in Ghana and therefore, nothing is being done about it.

Meanwhile, concerns about e-waste or computer waste are growing around the world, particularly in developed countries. However, in developing countries including Ghana the need to take a serious look at the issue of e-waste has not caught up yet.

E-waste is the generic name for electronic or computer wastes. These are discarded electronics devices that come into the waste stream from several sources.

They include gadgets like televisions, personal computers (PCs), telephones, air conditioners, cell phones, and electronic toys.

The list can further be widened to include appliances such as lifts, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, kitchen equipment or even aeroplanes.

The problems posed by e-waste are becoming more challenging, because the increase in the quantity of e-waste in the system is largely due to the speed of technological advancement and innovation coupled by a high obsolete rate. And because of the very critical role of technology in social and economic development, the issue of e-waste has become a complicated one.

Countries of the world are racing against each other in developing new technology, but technological advancement comes at some costs.

Indeed, no nation can develop without technological know-how and expertise. And some of the costs technology leaves in its trail include e-wastes and associated consequences.

These consequences reverberate in potential environmental as well as health hazards that put the globe at risk.

Among industrial waste campaigners the world over, electronics equipment is one of the largest known sources of heavy metals, toxic materials and organic pollutants in city waste.

Due to the speed at which technology is changing, people change their electronic equipment within short periods.

In the US alone, an estimated 30 million computers are thrown out every year. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), of this number, only 14% are recycled.

Available records show that by the end of 2004, over 314 million computers were obsolete and by the year 2007 the cumulative number of obsolete computers in the US is expected to rise to 500 million.

Due to this rapid advancement, the average life-span of computers has shrunk to less than two years. For most people, the lure of new technology is so strong that, they would rather buy a new computer than upgrade an old one, and those PCs that can not be upgraded add up to the waste pile.

Another estimate suggests that by 2010, 100 million cell phones and 300 million PCs will end up on the dumping site.

Sadly, because accurate statistics are often hard to obtain in Ghana and in most cases figures do not exist, estimates of PCs in Ghana are not readily available.

Moreover, the rate at which electronic gadgets become obsolete in Ghana is not known, taking into account the fact that a good number of PCs and other electronics gadgets that are imported into the country are already old.

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.

These facts and factors are well documented, and it would not be far fetched to say that it is surprising that the agencies responsible for the welfare of Ghana’s environment and the health of the people of this beloved country have not taken the necessary steps and measures to establish mechanisms as is done elsewhere to safeguard the environment and human health.

Checks at Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drew blank. Sources at the EPA said there is no policy regarding the handling of e-waste in Ghana!

The EPA is poorly resourced and not motivated enough to do its job of monitoring Ghana’s environment.

Besides, Ghana’s health institutions, apart from facing acute shortage of qualified health professionals, lack the equipment required to handle known and possible side effects of e-waste.

When one takes a walk around Accra, especially Agbogbloshie, and the area around the Abossey Okai mosque, where scrap dealers do their businesses, one would find piles of discarded television sets, PCs and other electronics equipment put out for sale.

Some people buy these items and use some of the parts to fix faulty equipment, but what happens to the other unwanted parts is anyone’s guess. Others are also known to burn these parts, under unhygienic and unsafe circumstances to remove some of the parts for use in other ways.

In the absence of any clear policy on e-waste in Ghana, the situation in the country becomes grim.

What is even more surprising is that, in spite of the currency of environmental issues in today’s globalized world, which has lead to the formation of political parties with ideological leanings that seek to pursue environmental issues in some countries, in Ghana, politicians hardly raise environmental issues in their campaign for political power.

It is high time we as a country looked seriously at the growing trend in e-waste and take a decisive step to deal with the problem, before we are slowly, but surely submerged in this cocktail of poisonous chemicals which can only mean disaster which is sure to come.

Environmental campaigners believe that a good heap of the e-waste discarded in developed countries land in developing countries, further exposing our people to health hazards we are hardly prepared to handle.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.