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WHO concerned over threat posed by e-waste to women, children

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern over the effect of soaring e-waste on the health of millions of children and women worldwide.

In the first WHO report on e-waste released in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday, the world body called for more effective and binding action to protect children and women from growing health threat of e-waste materials, especially from
discarded electrical or electronic devices.

The study said that as many as 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk.

It also said that more than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as five years of age, are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, of which waste processing is a sub-sector.

While presenting the report, the Director General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that effective and binding action is urgently required to protect the millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is jeopardized by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices.

Ghebreyesus said the report, which centred on ‘Children and Digital Dumpsites’, showed that children are often engaged by parents or caregivers in e-waste recycling because their small hands are more dexterous than those of adults.

According to him, children live, go to school and play near e-waste recycling centres where high levels of toxic chemicals, mostly lead and mercury, can damage their intellectual abilities.

He added that children exposed to e-waste are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals they contain due to their smaller size, less developed organs and rapid rate of growth and development.

“They absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to metabolize or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies,” he said.

On the impact of e-waste on human health, Ghebreyesus said: “With mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent international forum described as a mounting ‘tsunami of e-waste’, putting lives and health at risk.”

The WHO Director General said the world needs to rally to protect “our most valuable resource — the health of our children — from the growing threat of e-waste the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution”.

Ghebreyesus explained that workers, aiming to recover valuable materials such as copper and gold, are at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances, including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

For an expectant mother, he said the exposure to toxic e-waste can affect the health and development of her unborn child for the rest of its life, adding that potential adverse health effects include negative birth outcomes, such as stillbirth and premature births, as well as low birth weight and length.

“Exposure to lead from e-waste recycling activities has been associated with significantly reduced neonatal behavioural neurological assessment scores, increased rates of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioural problems, changes in child temperament, sensory integration difficulties, and reduced cognitive and language scores.

“Other adverse child health impacts linked to e-waste include changes in lung function, respiratory and respiratory effects, DNA damage, impaired thyroid function and increased risk of some chronic diseases later in life, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease,” Ghebreyesus said.

He said there is need for effective and binding action by exporters, importers and governments to ensure environmentally sound disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers, their families and communities; to monitor e-waste exposure and health outcomes; to facilitate better reuse of materials; and to encourage the manufacture of more durable electronic and electrical equipment.

In expressing its concern, WHO said that e-waste volumes are surging globally.

According to WHO, the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), showed e-waste volume has grown by 21% in the five years up to 2019, when 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated.

“For perspective, last year’s e-waste weighed as much as 350 cruise ships placed end to end to form a line 125km long. This growth is projected to continue as the use of computers, mobile phones and other electronics continues to expand, alongside their rapid obsolescence.

“Only 17.4% of e-waste produced in 2019 reached formal management or recycling facilities, according to the most recent GESP estimates, the rest was illegally dumped, overwhelmingly in low- or middle-income countries, where it is recycled by informal workers,” it said.

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