E-waste Impact on the Health of Children and Workers

E-waste Impact on the Health of Children and Workers

Children live, work, and play in informal e-waste recycling sites. Adults and children can be exposed by inhaling toxic fumes and particulate matter, through skin contact with corrosive agents and chemicals, and by ingesting contaminated food and water. Children are also at risk from additional routes of exposure. Some hazardous chemicals can be passed from mothers to children during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Young children playing outside or in nature frequently put their hands, objects, and soil in their mouths, increasing the risk of exposure. Fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to damage from exposure to toxicants in e-waste because of their physiology, behaviour, and additional routes of exposure (Landrigan & Goldman 2011; Pronczuk de Garbino 2004).

Adverse health effects recently found to be associated with e-waste: Since the publication of the previous e-waste monitor in 2017, the number of studies on the adverse health effects from e-waste has increased. These studies have continued to highlight the dangers to human health from exposure to well-studied toxins, such as lead. Recently, research has found that unregulated e-waste recycling is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects. These include adverse birth outcomes (Zhang Y et al. 2018), altered neurodevelopment (Huo X et al. 2019b), adverse learning outcomes (Soetrisno et al. 2020), DNA damage (Alabi OA et al. 2012.), adverse cardiovascular effects (Cong X et al. 2018), adverse respiratory effects (Amoabeng Nti AA et al. 2020), adverse effects on the immune system (Huo X et al. 2019b), skin diseases (Decharat S et al. 2019; Seith et al. 2019), hearing loss (Xu L et al. 2020), and cancer (Davis JM et al. 2019). 

Because of their unique vulnerability and susceptibility to environmental toxicants, infants and children have been a significant focus on health effects studies. Since the publication of the previous e-waste monitor in 2017, research on unregulated e-waste recycling and its associations with adverse health outcomes has expanded. These studies have continued to highlight the dangers to human health from exposure to well-studied toxins, such as lead. The following section highlights the most recent findings between e-waste recycling and human health outcomes. 

Studies have reported associations between exposure to informal e-waste recycling and adverse birth outcomes (stillbirth, premature birth, lower gestational age, lower birth weight and length, and lower APGAR scores), increased or decreased growth, altered neurodevelopment, adverse learning and behavioural outcomes, immune system function, and lung function. Multiple studies have investigated the impact of e-waste exposure on thyroid function in children but have reported inconsistent results. A small number of studies have also suggested that DNA damage, changes in gene expression, cardiovascular regulatory changes, rapid onset of blood coagulation, hearing loss and olfactory memory may be associated with exposure to informal e-waste management.  

The lack of workplace health and safety regulations leads to an increased risk of injuries for workers in informal e-waste dismantling and recycling. E-waste workers have also reported stress, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and dizziness. Among adults involved in informal e-waste management or living in e-waste communities, DNA damage has been associated with exposure to chemicals in e-waste. A small number of studies have also reported effects on liver function, fasting blood glucose levels, male reproductive and genital disorders, and effects on sperm quality from exposure to informal e-waste recycling. There has been a large increase in research into the health impacts of e-waste recycling over the last decade. It is difficult to assess whether exposure to e-waste as a whole causes specific health outcomes because of studies' small populations, the variety of chemical exposures measured, the variety of outcomes measured, and the lack of prospective long-term studies. Yet the body of research suggests there is a significant risk of harm, especially to children who are still growing and developing. Individual chemicals in e-waste such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, PCBs, PBDEs, and PAHs are known to have serious impacts on nearly every organ system (Grant et al. 2013).

Availability of health statistics: In addition to reliable statistics on e-waste collection, processing, and conditions of work, harmonised data on the number of people exposed, exposure to hazardous toxicants, and health effects are critical to understanding the impact of e-waste management. Harmonised statistics are vital for monitoring health impacts, informing decision-makers of the scope of the problem, and evaluating interventions.

Exposure: Limited data are available on the number of people exposed to e-waste. Only rough estimates are available of the number of people involved in informal e-waste management internationally and in impacted countries (EMG 2019; ILO, 2019; Perkins DN 2014; Prakash et al 2010; Xing GH et al. 2009). It is often unclear what methods have been used to produce these estimates. They often do not take into account individuals living in communities but not involved in informal recycling, children, or those exposed to pollutants through environmental contamination. 

Large populations in e-waste recycling hotspots may be at risk. But just because a country doesn’t have a concentrated neighbourhood of e-waste recycling activity doesn’t mean it has no e-waste problem. E-waste is part of a larger waste context and is often collected door-to-door or sent to landfills as part of general waste. Waste-pickers, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable, maybe exposed in communities around the world (Gutberlet J & Uddin SMN 2017). In Latin America, e-waste is often recycled in small shops across cities, instead of being concentrated in one area (ITU et al. 2016a). 

A growing number of studies have measured the daily intake and body burden of single e-waste pollutants, but they have been limited to small numbers of participants (Song & Li 2014). Long-term monitoring of occupational exposure, burdens on the body, environmental levels, and health is needed to quantify the impact of e-waste (Heacock et al. 2018). Experts have recommended that exposure and environmental monitoring include metals, small particulate matter (PM2.5), persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and PAHs (Heacock et al. 2018). Large biomonitoring initiatives are being developed to monitor exposure to chemical hazards (Prüss-Ustün A et al. 2011) and maybe a good model for e-waste.

Health effects: Although there is a growing amount of information about the health effects of e-waste exposure, there is limited data available about the number of people suffering from the effects. Academic studies of exposure and health effects have primarily been small studies of 50 to 450 participants (Grant K et al. 2013; Song Q & Li J 2015; Zeng X et al. 2019b; Zeng Z et al. 2018a). Some of these studies have reported contamination of control groups, suggesting the widespread transport of contaminants (Sepúlveda et al. 2010; Song Q & Li J 2015). No large-scale longitudinal studies have been published. There are significant challenges to collecting e-waste-related health statistics, such as a large number of potential health outcomes, the challenges of studying chemical mixtures, the lack of confirmed exposure-outcome relationships, and the long latency periods of some diseases. Internationally harmonised indicators can assist in measuring the number of people at risk of e-waste-related health effects and with monitoring trends over time.  

Follow: Global E-waste Monitor 2020


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