Reducing e-waste recycling risks in Ghana
How researchers are working to help mitigate the effects of toxic pollution at Agbogbloshie, a notorious dump for the world’s e-waste
Posted by Brian Owens on September 17, 2019
In the middle of Accra, the capital of Ghana, sits Agbogbloshie, one of the largest and oldest electronic waste recycling sites in Africa. The eight-hectare scrapyard takes in used electronics from Europe, the United States, India and China, which workers disassemble to recover reusable parts or valuable metals, such as the copper inside wires and cables, for recycling.
But the work is not done by employees in safe, controlled workshops in a formal recycling centre. Instead, informal workers get at the useful electronic parts by burning off the rubber and plastic insulation that surrounds them out in the open. It’s the fastest, easiest and cheapest way for these people to do so, and can earn them US$15-$20 per day, which is considered a decent amount. But the pollution they create can exact a heavy toll.
“They can make a good living, but at a cost to their health,” says Andrés Sánchez, a senior program specialist at IDRC. Burning the rubber and plastic can release fumes that contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and chromium, and dangerous chemicals such as dioxin into the air. And it’s not just the workers who suffer. About 40,000 people live close to Agbogbloshie, and the fumes affect them, too.
To understand the impact of the pollution created at Agbogbloshie, IDRC is collaborating with the Fogarty International Center of the United States’ National Institutes of Health to establish a West Africa Global Environmental and Occupational Health (GEOHealth) Hub in Accra, one of seven such research and training centres around the world that the two organizations help support as part of the Global Environmental and Occupational Health initiative. The West Africa GEOHealth Hub will help inform policy and develop solutions to help reduce the impact of pollution but will also study the health risks of other parts of the informal economy in the region, including small-scale gold mining and transportation
“We know the work is dangerous, but we don’t have evidence of what the effects of specific activities are,” says Julius Fobil, a professor in the department of biological, environmental and occupational health at the University of Ghana who is leading the West Africa GEOHealth Hub project.
Fobil and his colleagues have been conducting medical checks, testing blood and urine to measure the e-waste workers’ chemical exposure, and studying how the pollutants can cause lung and kidney damage, or cause long-term chronic diseases such as cancer in the future. They also have plans to look at how the pollution affects the health of children and pregnant women who live and work near Agbogbloshie. “It’s a close examination of the risks and health impact on workers and the wider community,” says Sánchez.
The workers are not unaware of the health risks they face, says Fobil. For years, NGOs have been educating them about the dangers of unsafe recycling practices, and providing equipment that could make doing such a job safer. But those projects rarely consult with the workers enough to understand what they need or what kinds of equipment they’d actually use.
For example, they’ve been offered machines that can strip the insulation from copper wire, which is safer than burning it, but these devices generally take too long to do the job and require too much manpower to operate, so the yield is too low to be attractive. The unsafe working practices are driven not by ignorance, but by necessity. “These are poor people, so it’s attractive to burn the cables because it doesn’t cost anything,” says Fobil. “So the workers don’t really use the interventions provided.”
Researchers with the West Africa GEOHealth Hub are focused on consulting with the workers to try and develop alternative solutions to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals. “We want to go there with engineers and find out what kinds of machines would actually work for these people,” says Fobil.
The increasing importance of electronics in everyday life around the globe means that finding safe and effective ways to recycle them is becoming more important. “The amount of e-waste is increasing at a rapid rate,” says Sánchez. “So the problem is not going away. We need solutions to better manage it.”
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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