E-Waste – A New Challenge to the Ecosystem and Public Health: Guest Blogger Dr. Mohan Lal Jangwal

Ewaste-pileVarious types of waste have been polluting our natural resources over many years. Out of those present in the environment, a newcomer called e-waste, which is generated from different electronic devices, has come along. This has now become a significant contributor to the total environmental waste, and even in developing countries, this e-waste is the fastest growing of all the varieties. For example, in Bangalore, about 20,000 tons of e-waste is generated per year, and the volume is increasing roughly 20% every year. By the year 2020, India’s e-waste is expected to soar to almost 500%. (1) Hence, developing countries like India that are fast-growing markets for electrical and electronic devices, are facing an enormous challenge regarding generation and management of e-waste.

In the present scenario, people are utilizing these devices in their households and offices. Electronics and electrical devices like computers, cellphones, monitors, refrigerators, entertainment equipment, DVD and CD players, coffee machines, etc. are not hazardous while utilizing them, but become harmful after they are discarded. However, e-waste is not only formed when these products are nearing their end-of-life, but it is also produced when technology advances, or changes in fashion, style and the status of a family prompt them to replace the products sooner.

The e-waste generated from these devices contains various hazardous ingredients. Any used, obsolete device found in houses or offices can be considered e-waste, as it no longer has any useful life in it. This type of equipment contains plenty of highly toxic materials. There are different types of e-waste, but one thing that all e-waste has in common is its general containment of heavy metals, such lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, etc. When these heavy metals are present in excess of their prescribed limits, they become hazardous to human health. The problem only becomes worse when we try using customary techniques for recycling. Those who try recycling these electronics without regard to their hazardous contents are unaware that they are, carelessly releasing lead, mercury, and other toxins into the environment.

Once released, these heavy metals enter the food chain as cattle feed on the vegetation that has grown with polluted water. These toxic materials are more poisonous than the pollution from any other means. Additionally, children are more susceptible than adults to these toxic materials. This disposal leads to widespread soil pollution and underground water pollution besides air pollution. Hence, generated e-waste leads to serious health and ecological problems.

Heavy metal contaminants cause various types of diseases, ranging from simple contact dermatitis to multiorgan damage and numerous different cancers. The effects of toxic substances may cause nearly irreversible damage to the human body.

As this e-waste contains toxic ingredients, their proper disposal is of major importance. There is a variety of methods currently used for e-waste disposal. Despite the fact that the dumping method of disposal greatly pollutes the ground water, in some areas, 90% of waste is disposed of in this manner. Incineration is also a popular method of disposal that helps reduce the volume of the waste as well as converts some of it to less hazardous substances, but at the same time, it can release harmful chemicals into the air. Very little e-waste actually gets recycled, and rest of the e-waste goes to landfills and incineration. Because landfills pose a threat to the entire environment and therefore human health, it is essential that we recycle our electronic waste products to avoid as much environmental pollution as possible. Recycling in this case means assembling, developing, promoting, or buying of new products that are prepared from waste products.

In recent years, there have been various international calls for action stressing the need for strategic interventions in the field of e-waste. The Basel Convention has decreased movement of hazardous waste between countries, including India and countries within the European Union. Europe has also started to require that manufacturers handle electronic waste after consumers dispose of it – so-called “extended producer responsibility” – and they have also set a schedule to phase out certain toxic substances in electronics. (4)

The WHO is working with a number of countries on reducing pollution due to e-waste management, and to determine the major sources of waste and risks to health. They have also begun the “E-Waste and Child Health Initiative” to focus on protecting children. The organization is working with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), the United States’ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. (5)

As this is a man-made problem, the solution of this problem also lies in the hands of the people. On one side, strong regulatory machinery is required. On the other side, there needs to be more awareness among the general population, as well as changes in the behaviour of those who are in contact or involved with e-waste trade. Too much of the population is ignorant about e-waste, despite the staggering amount of electronic devices we all use. If people around the world try to understand the adverse effects of our handling of electronics on our environment and our bodies, we could all help make this world free of e-waste.

Mohan Lal Jangwal Dr. Mohan Lal Jangwal, Associate Professor, Department of Community Medicine, Govt. Medical College, Amritsar

Image: Pile of e-Waste / Electronic waste: A few older and defective computers, CRT monitors and a television. Author: AvWijk. 27 August 2008. Access the original Image information here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ewaste-pile.jpg

References (click to show/hide)

  1. Leah Borromeo. India’s E- waste Burden, the Guardian, Guardian Professional, 11th October, 2013. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/india-it-electronic-waste
  2. Kurian Joseph. E – Waste Management in India: Issues and Strategies. Proceedings. Sardina 2007, Eleventh International Waste Management and Landfill Symposium. Caligari, Italy.2007.
  3. Monika and Jugal Kishore. E-Waste Management: As a challenge to Public Health in India. IJCM. 2010.;35(3):382-4. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2963874/
  4. Ramachandra TV and Saira Varghese K. Environmentally Sound Options for E-Waste Management. Envis. Journal of Human Settlements. 2004. Available at: http://www.ecsenvironment.com/images/Library/Journals/Environmentally%20Sound%20Options%20For%20E-Wastes%20Management%20Ramachandra%20TV%20%20Saira%20Varghese%20K.pdf
  5. Electronic Waste. World Health Organization. Accessed Jun 25, 2014 at: http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/ewaste/en/