Digital dumpsites: E-waste poses serious health threat to Pakistan

Workers sort through electronic waste. The amount of e-waste generated globally last year represents more than 6.8 kilograms for every living person, according to the UN. Image Credit: AP

Islamabad: Millions of phones, computers and electronic devices are dumped daily, creating a ‘tsunami of e-waste’, causing significant health risks and environmental pol-lution, experts have warned.

Pakistan is among the 15 countries where large informal electronic-waste (e-waste) dismantling and recycling sites have been reported which is a major health hazard, ac-cording to the first WHO report on e-waste titled ‘Children and Digital Dumpsites’. Bra-zil, China and India are the three countries where e-waste recycling is most prominent and India was described as the “major importer and producer of e-waste.”

The report calls for urgent action 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. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the mounting ‘tsunami of e-waste’ was “putting lives and health at risk” and the world needs to rally to “protect the health of our children from the growing threat of e-waste.”

433 kilo tonnes of e-waste

Pakistan produced 433 kilo tonnes of e-waste in 2019 and does not have a national e-waste regulation in place to control the menace. Locations of informal e-waste disman-tling and recycling sites in Pakistan are located in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Peshawar. The major location for e-waste recycling and disman-tling is the coastal city of Karachi where an estimated 12.46 kilotons of old computers were imported in 2014.

Detailing e-waste recycling areas in Pakistan, the report said that e-waste recycling, dismantling and refurbishment are undertaken in Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Peshawar and Islamabad on a small scale. “However, research has recorded small children working in e-waste recycling, working at tasks such as cleaning, dismantling and burning electronic items” which is a serious health risk.

A growing pile

In 2019, some 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide, reporting a 21 per cent increase over the past five years. Only 17.4% of e-waste produced in 2019 reached formal management or recycling facilities, according to Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) estimates. The rest was illegally dumped, overwhelmingly in low or middle-income countries, where it is recycled by informal workers.

What is e-waste?

E-waste typically includes discarded electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets, computers, televisions as well as electrical appliances, both heavy and light. The aver-age mobile phone is disposed of in less than two years now. The failure to recycle electronic devices is triggering a crisis of e-waste issue and also leading to a shortage of precious metals that most phones contain.

Call for urgent and effective action

More than 18 million children and adolescents, some as young as 5 years of age, and some 12.9 million women, working in the informal industrial sector, are at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances, mostly lead and mercury. The WHO has urged for effective and binding action by exporters, importers and governments to ensure en-vironmentally sound disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers, their families and communities and to monitor e-waste exposure.

“Children and adolescents have the right to grow and learn in a healthy environment, and exposure to electrical and electronic waste and its many toxic components un-questionably impacts that right,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director, department of environ-ment, climate change and health, at the WHO. “The health sector can play a role by providing leadership and advocacy, conducting research, influencing policy-makers, engaging communities, and reaching out to other sectors to demand that health con-cerns be made central to e-waste policies.”