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Feature: Electro-scrap sparks health fears

It is no secret that when it comes to working conditions and environmental impact, neither China nor India have particularly good track records. Further fuelling their poor reputation is a new study from Greenpeace which provides an overview of the detrimental effects that
electronic recycling plants are having on the environment and human health.

As the recycling of electro-scrap goes largely unregulated in Asia, the study was designed to give a 'snapshot' of workplace and environmental contamination from a selection of industrial units and dump sites associated with China and India's electronic waste recycling sectors. But with four million PCs discarded each year in China alone, the problem is not a small one.

More than 70 samples were taken during March, including industrial wastes, indoor dusts, soils, river sediments and groundwater. The study states: "Results confirm that all stages in the processing of electrical and electronic wastes have potential to release substantial quantities of toxic heavy metals and organic compounds to the workplace environment and, at least to the extent studied, to surrounding soils and water courses."

Lead, tin, copper, cadmium and antimony were found among the high levels of waste and all are known to have extensive use in the electronics sector. Other metals abundant in the samples included barium, chromium, cobalt, gold, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc.

"The range of organic contaminants identified in waste and sediment samples also reflected current or historical use in electrical and/or electronic goods, including brominated, chlorinated and phosphorus-based flame retardants, phthalate esters and esters of long-chain organic acids," says the study. As well as poisoning land and rivers, the chemicals found can cause long-term damage to the nervous system, kidneys, bone structure and reproductive systems. Effects to the immune system have also been reported.

For some time now, the west has watched China's economic growth with growing unease. China now has one of the world's fastest growing economies and is the fifth largest exporter of merchandise. It also consumes more steel, meat and grain than any other nation. But there are concerns that if the Chinese economy were to falter, it would be felt by the rest of the world. Nor is it a secret that the economic boom has created severe social and environmental problems.

This growth has meant increasing energy demands and a dramatic impact on the environment. As the world's second biggest emitter of CO2, China is blamed for some of the air pollution in Japan and Korea. But as a developing nation it is not required to reduce its emissions.

Greenpeace admits that while this is not an exhaustive study of e-waste recycling facilities in either country, the report gives a good indication of the problems being caused by this sector.

The study continues: "As well as bringing to light some of the many unseen impacts of the vast and growing electronics waste stream, and the need for much tighter controls both on the transboundary movement of such wastes and the manner in which they are recycled, this study also adds weight to the need to redesign
and reformulate all new electronic goods in order to facilitate proper dismantling and component separation, and to avoid the use of hazardous chemical components at source."

Although the Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment Directive and Restrictions on Hazardous Substances

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