Children and pregnant women are vulnerable to toxic e-waste chemicals

Electronic waste is becoming a major problem in the country and globally. | Greenpeace/Pierre Virot/REUTERS

Electronic waste is becoming a major problem in the country and globally. | Greenpeace/Pierre Virot/REUTERS

Published Mar 19, 2024


In the past few years, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has loomed large, and now artificial intelligence (AI) has taken over.

Technological devices have developed immensely and are continuing to double up in manufacturing to meet the demand of the global population.

That is why electronic waste (e-waste) from electrical and electronic appliances and devices is becoming a major problem in the country and globally.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines e-waste as “electrical and electronic devices and appliances discarded and thrown away as they break or become obsolete”.

“Common items in e-waste streams include computers, mobile phones and large household appliances, as well as medical equipment,” WHO continued.

WHO stated that e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world and is hazardous to the environment when inferior recycling and disposal occurs, since electronic devices contain toxic chemicals that release neurotoxins such as lead, dioxins and mercury.

These substances contaminate the environment and endanger human life, in particular pregnant women and children. Children and pregnant women are vulnerable due to their unique pathways of exposure and their developmental status.

WHO reported in 2019 that an estimated 53.6 million tons of e-waste was produced globally, but only 17.4% was documented as formally collected, disposed and recycled.

Meanwhile, the Gauteng Department of e-Government (GDeG) has said the country produces 360 000 tons of e-waste annually, with the province accounting for 55% of that volume.

“Consumers need to be better educated on how to properly dispose of their appliances if we are to avoid an environmental catastrophe,” said Patricia Schröder, spokesperson for the official producer responsibility organisation (PRO) on Circular Energy.

Circular Energy is a Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) registered PRO in efficient and ethical electronic management of waste.

WHO further reported that individuals in low-and middle-income (LMICs) households are vulnerable to e-waste toxins due to a lack of regulations in appropriate e-waste recycling and disposal.

Thus, the new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulation under the National Environmental Management: Waste Act of 2008 regulates ethical recycling and disposal, among others, of e-waste by importers and manufacturers in order to protect the environment.

However, the initiative could be severely hampered if consumers don’t know what to do with their old appliances.

Moreover, Schröder warned the public to be wary of companies that encourage consumers to take appliances to “smashing centres” to smash these appliances for fun, or anger management, as it’s an unsafe practice and illegal in accordance with the environmental act.

“Therefore, they require specialised handling, recycling and treatment by suitably qualified persons within safely isolated environments,” she said.

In addition, WHO emphasised unethical and inferior disposal and recycling of e-waste in e-waste sites, such as scavenging, acid baths and acid leaching; stripping and shredding of plastic coating and, the most hazardous to the environment and human health, open burning and heating.

When hazardous activities take place, they expose children and pregnant women to neonatal outcomes, including stillbirths and premature births; neurodevelopment, learning and behaviour outcomes which are associated with lead released via inferior e-waste recycling activities; and reduced respiratory function, among others.

The Star

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