Children's environmental health

Electronic waste

WHO/ Anna Kari

With the usage of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) on the rise, the amount of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) produced each day is equally growing enormously around the globe. Recycling of valuable elements contained in e-waste such as copper and gold has become a source of income mostly in the informal sector of developing or emerging industrialized countries. However, primitive recycling techniques such as burning cables for retaining the inherent copper expose both adult and child workers as well as their families to a range of hazardous substances. E-waste-connected health risks may result from direct contact with harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), from inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food. In addition to its hazardous components, being processed, e-waste can give rise to a number of toxic by-products likely to affect human health. Furthermore, recycling activities such as dismantling of electrical equipment may potentially bear an increased risk of injury.

Children are especially vulnerable to the health risks that may result from e-waste exposure and, therefore, need more specific protection. As they are still growing, children’s intake of air, water and food in proportion to their weight is significantly increased compared to adults, - and with that, the risk of hazardous chemical absorption. Furthermore, their bodies’ functional systems such as the central nervous, immune, reproductive and digestive system are still developing and exposure to toxic substances, by hampering further development, may cause irreversible damage. Many children are exposed to e-waste-derived chemicals in their daily life due to unsafe recycling activities that are often conducted at their home- either by family members or by the children themselves. Furthermore, children may be exposed through dump sites located close to their homes, schools and play areas.

During the last few years, various international calls for action have highlighted the need of strategic interventions in the field of e-waste. These include the Libreville Declaration emanating from the first Inter-Ministerial Conference on Health and Environment in Africa 2008, the Busan Pledge for Action on Children’s Environmental Health of 2009 and the Strategic Approach to Integrated Chemical Management’s expanded Global Plan of Action issued at the International Conference on Chemical Management ICCM3 in 2012. Currently, there are a number of international initiatives that are addressing global e-waste management and trade concerns, as well as issues with environmental pollution due to e-waste.

Together with its collaborating partners, WHO is working at identifying the main sources and potential health risks of e-waste exposures and defining successful interventions. Initial support is being provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), the United States’ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. WHO has recently launched the E-Waste and Child Health Initiative aiming at protecting children and their families from detrimental health consequences due to e-waste.

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