E-Waste: Health Impacts in Developing Countries

Jul 19th, 2014 | By | Category: Environmental Management, India

EHS Journal - PCB2 by Sundeip Arora

Electronic waste (E-Waste) has become a critical global environmental health issue due to the large and growing volume of E-Waste found in the market place and insufficient management policies in many countries (Ogunseitan et. al. 2009). This article reviews the public health impacts associated with E-Waste management in developing countries and outlines recommendations to further evaluate and reduce the harmful effects of managing E-Waste.


What is E-Waste?

E-Waste is the term used to describe old or discarded electronics and appliances, for example, cathode ray tube (CRT) tele­visions and computer monitors, desktop computers, laptop computers, liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, cell phones, keyboards, computer mice, print­ers, and copiers. E-Waste contains valuable components such as precious metals that can be recovered through the recycling process; however, E-Waste also contains a high proportion of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that can be toxic to human health and the environment when they are released through inap­propriate recycling processes.

Environmental contamination caused by improper E-Waste management has been noted as a growing problem in sev­eral developing countries (Robinson 2009). Also, the UNEP and Basel Convention (2005) indicated that emissions from E-Wastes are damaging human health and the environment. For example, the burning of E-Waste to recover precious metals releases organic compounds and, potentially, dioxins and furans. Arsenic and asbestos may act as catalysts during burning, increasing the formation of dioxins, which are carcinogenic in nature.

Although serious health concerns may arise from inappropriate E-Waste recycling activities, little research has been conducted in this area to date.


Developing Countries and E-Waste

Approximately 40 million metric tons of E-Waste are produced globally every year, with developed economies such as the European Union and the United States accounting for 22.5% and 24%, respectively (UNEP 2009). Nearly 13% of the world’s E-Waste is managed and recycled by developing countries, which are processing both E-Wastes from their own rapidly growing economies and from developed countries. Informal recycling markets established in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines handle from 50% to 80% of the E-Waste managed by the developing countries. Management methods often include shredding, burning, and dismantling of waste electronics in informal “backyard operations.”


Impacts of E-Waste on Health

Electronic devices consist of a large number of chemical elements and compounds. Even a mobile phone can contain more than 40 elements (UNEP 2009). E-Waste is more hazardous than many other municipal wastes because electronic gadgets can contain thousands of components made of potentially harmful chemicals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, beryllium, antimony, polyvinyl chlorides (PVC), brominated flame retardants, and phthalates. Long term exposure to these compounds affects the nervous system, kidneys, bones, and reproductive and endocrine systems.

Pregnant women who grew up in a recycling site would have an even longer exposure history and higher body burden in physiologic deposits (e.g., bones and adipose tissues) than women who moved to an E-Waste recycling site at the time of marriage. The developing fetus and child are particularly vulnerable to several known and suspected developmental neurotoxicants in E-Waste.  Infants and children can be exposed to these neurotoxicants from con­taminated indoor and outdoor air, water, and soil. If the food and drinking water also come from contaminated community wells, the exposure to harmful constituents will aggregate to a higher level.

Neurodevelopmental deficits are a serious concern when evaluating exposure to E-Waste toxi­cants because children living in E-Waste recy­cling communities may have been exposed to high-levels of toxicant mixtures throughout their lifetime. Also, the toxicant body-load can be higher with infants and young children because they have relatively low body weight (Pronczuk de Garbino 2004). Developing fetuses and young children are at critical windows of neuronal growth, differentiation, migration, synaptogenesis, and myelination, which can increase the harmful effects of exposure. Disruption of these fine-tuned processes in human neurodevelopment can have detrimental effects (Dietrich 2010).


E-Waste Exposure

Toxicant exposure to E-Waste has several unique characteristics. First, E-Waste toxicants are released in uncon­trolled recycling processes as a mixture. It is not uncommon that persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals coexist in the environment in recycling work­shops and nearby neighborhoods. Second, the E-Waste toxicant exposure is not homo­geneous. The variability comes from several sources: the type of E-Waste, length of recy­cling history, quantity of recycling, specialization in recycling processes, locations of workshops, parental involvement in recycling, and the daily activities of the child. Third, the exposure to E-Waste toxicants lasts a long time. Many of the recycling sites have oper­ated for more than a decade, and cumulative exposure in the local environment is typi­cally high.



A systematic approach guided by exposure assessments and health effects research is needed to prevent toxicant expo­sures associated with E-Waste. Engineers, environmental sci­entists, and other professionals can participate in this research and seek to minimize exposure to these toxicants among affected populations. Restricting the use of toxic chemi­cals in manufacturing of electronic devices will form the upstream of prevention efforts, but many changes are also needed in the current recycling practices. Appropriate recycling technologies should be the mainstay of E-waste recycling, and informal and primitive recycling practices need to be significantly reduced or eliminated. Exposure of children to excessive E-Waste toxicants should be minimized at both household and community levels.


Environmental Health Policies

Effective environmental regulations in E-Waste management are also needed to prevent excessive exposure to toxicants. Both developed and developing countries share joint responsibility in regu­lating electronic device manufacturing and E-Waste trans-boundary movement. In countries where primitive recycling processes exist, human health — especially children’s health — should drive regulation and management of recycling activities. Also, restricting the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing electronic devices would help reduce exposures to unnecessary hazardous substances.

In response to the lack of specific data on the effects of E-Waste on children’s health, the United Nations World Health Organization is developing a specific plan of action (Brune et al; 2013). This initiative includes:

  • communicating the adverse impacts associated with E-Waste in an effort to raise public awareness;
  • developing training methods and programs for health professionals;
  • encouraging specific research about E-Waste; and
  • gathering interested stakeholders to move this issue forward.


About the Authors

Shashi N. Kumar is a Senior Research Fellow (SRF) at the Environmental Toxicology Laboratory, National Institute Pathology, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). He has more than 6 years of experience in the field of reproductive toxicology. He is pursuing a PhD in Toxicology at Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, India.

Arun Kumar Jain is a Scientist ‘F’ at the Electron Microscopy and Environmental Toxicology Laboratory, National Institute Pathology, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). He has more than 20 years of experience in the field of Pathology and Toxicology.

The Environmental Toxicology Laboratory, National Institute of Pathology (ICMR) is associated with the Safdarjang Hospital Campus in New Delhi, India.


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  2. Dietrich KN (2010). Environmental toxicants. In: Pediatric Neuropsychology, 2nd ed. (Yeates KO, Ris MD, Taylor HG, Pennington BF, eds). New York:Guilford Press, 211–264.
  3. Ogunseitan OA, Schoenung JM, Saphores JD, Shapiro AA (2009). Science and regulation. The electronics revolution: from e-wonderland to e-wasteland. Science 326:670–671.
  4. Pronczuk de Garbino J (2009). Children’s health and the environment: a global perspective. A resource manual for the health sector. In: Pronczuk de Garbino J, ed. New York: World Health Organization, 2004.
  5. Robinson BH (2009). E-waste: an assessment of global production and environmental impacts. Sci Total Environ 408:183–191.
  6. UNEP and Basel Convention (2005). “Vital Waste Graphics,” Global Resource Information Database. Available: www.grida.no/publications/vg/waste, on Jan. 24, 2013.

Photograph:  PCB2 by Sundeip Arora, India.


Other E-Waste Articles in the EHS Journal

India E-Waste Market and Vendors from TechSci Research

E-Waste: A Growing Problem by Maureen O’Donnell

Electronic Waste Management by William Wright


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