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      E-Waste and Harm to Vulnerable Populations: A Growing Global Problem


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          Electronic waste (e-waste) is produced in staggering quantities, estimated globally to be 41.8 million tonnes in 2014. Informal e-waste recycling is a source of much-needed income in many low- to middle-income countries. However, its handling and disposal in underdeveloped countries is often unsafe and leads to contaminated environments. Rudimentary and uncontrolled processing methods often result in substantial harmful chemical exposures among vulnerable populations, including women and children. E-waste hazards have not yet received the attention they deserve in research and public health agendas.


          We provide an overview of the scale and health risks. We review international efforts concerned with environmental hazards, especially affecting children, as a preface to presenting next steps in addressing health issues stemming from the global e-waste problem.


          The e-waste problem has been building for decades. Increased observation of adverse health effects from e-waste sites calls for protecting human health and the environment from e-waste contamination. Even if e-waste exposure intervention and prevention efforts are implemented, legacy contamination will remain, necessitating increased awareness of e-waste as a major environmental health threat.


          Global, national, and local levels efforts must aim to create safe recycling operations that consider broad security issues for people who rely on e-waste processing for survival. Paramount to these efforts is reducing pregnant women and children’s e-waste exposures to mitigate harmful health effects. With human environmental health in mind, novel dismantling methods and remediation technologies and intervention practices are needed to protect communities.


          Heacock M, Kelly CB, Asante KA, Birnbaum LS, Bergman AL, Bruné MN, Buka I, Carpenter DO, Chen A, Huo X, Kamel M, Landrigan PJ, Magalini F, Diaz-Barriga F, Neira M, Omar M, Pascale A, Ruchirawat M, Sly L, Sly PD, Van den Berg M, Suk WA. 2016. E-waste and harm to vulnerable populations: a growing global problem. Environ Health Perspect 124:550–555; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1509699

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          E-waste: an assessment of global production and environmental impacts.

          E-waste comprises discarded electronic appliances, of which computers and mobile telephones are disproportionately abundant because of their short lifespan. The current global production of E-waste is estimated to be 20-25 million tonnes per year, with most E-waste being produced in Europe, the United States and Australasia. China, Eastern Europe and Latin America will become major E-waste producers in the next ten years. Miniaturisation and the development of more efficient cloud computing networks, where computing services are delivered over the internet from remote locations, may offset the increase in E-waste production from global economic growth and the development of pervasive new technologies. E-waste contains valuable metals (Cu, platinum group) as well as potential environmental contaminants, especially Pb, Sb, Hg, Cd, Ni, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Burning E-waste may generate dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAHs), and hydrogen chloride. The chemical composition of E-waste changes with the development of new technologies and pressure from environmental organisations on electronics companies to find alternatives to environmentally damaging materials. Most E-waste is disposed in landfills. Effective reprocessing technology, which recovers the valuable materials with minimal environmental impact, is expensive. Consequently, although illegal under the Basel Convention, rich countries export an unknown quantity of E-waste to poor countries, where recycling techniques include burning and dissolution in strong acids with few measures to protect human health and the environment. Such reprocessing initially results in extreme localised contamination followed by migration of the contaminants into receiving waters and food chains. E-waste workers suffer negative health effects through skin contact and inhalation, while the wider community are exposed to the contaminants through smoke, dust, drinking water and food. There is evidence that E-waste associated contaminants may be present in some agricultural or manufactured products for export.
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            Health consequences of exposure to e-waste: a systematic review.

            The population exposed to potentially hazardous substances through inappropriate and unsafe management practices related to disposal and recycling of end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment, collectively known as e-waste, is increasing. We aimed to summarise the evidence for the association between such exposures and adverse health outcomes.
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              Developmental Neurotoxicants in E-Waste: An Emerging Health Concern

              Objective Electronic waste (e-waste) has been an emerging environmental health issue in both developed and developing countries, but its current management practice may result in unintended developmental neurotoxicity in vulnerable populations. To provide updated information about the scope of the issue, presence of known and suspected neurotoxicants, toxicologic mechanisms, and current data gaps, we conducted this literature review. Data sources We reviewed original articles and review papers in PubMed and Web of Science regarding e-waste toxicants and their potential developmental neurotoxicity. We also searched published reports of intergovernmental and governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations on e-waste production and management practice. Data extraction We focused on the potential exposure to e-waste toxicants in vulnerable populations—that is, pregnant women and developing children—and neurodevelopmental outcomes. In addition, we summarize experimental evidence of developmental neurotoxicity and mechanisms. Data synthesis In developing countries where most informal and primitive e-waste recycling occurs, environmental exposure to lead, cadmium, chromium, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is prevalent at high concentrations in pregnant women and young children. Developmental neurotoxicity is a serious concern in these regions, but human studies of adverse effects and potential mechanisms are scarce. The unprecedented mixture of exposure to heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants warrants further studies and necessitates effective pollution control measures. Conclusions Pregnant women and young children living close to informal e-waste recycling sites are at risk of possible perturbations of fetus and child neurodevelopment.

                Author and article information

                Environ Health Perspect
                Environ. Health Perspect
                Environmental Health Perspectives
                National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
                29 September 2015
                May 2016
                : 124
                : 5
                : 550-555
                [1 ]National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA
                [2 ]MDB, Inc., Durham, North Carolina, USA
                [3 ]Water Research Institute, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Accra, Ghana
                [4 ]Swedish Toxicology Sciences Research Center, Södertälje University, Södertälje, Sweden
                [5 ]World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland
                [6 ]University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
                [7 ]University at Albany, Rensselaer, New York, USA
                [8 ]University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
                [9 ]Shantou University Medical College, Shantou, China
                [10 ]Basel Convention Regional Centre for Training and Technology Transfer, Al-Orman, Giza, Egypt
                [11 ]Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, New York, USA
                [12 ]United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace, United Nations University, Bonn, Germany
                [13 ]Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, San Luis Potosí, Mexico
                [14 ]Cairo University, Giza, Egypt
                [15 ]Department of Toxicology, School of Medicine, University of the Republic, Montevideo, Uruguay
                [16 ]Chulabhorn Research Institute, Bangkok, Thailand
                [17 ]Queensland Children’s Medical Research Institute, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
                [18 ]Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands
                Author notes
                []Address correspondence to M. Heacock, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 111 T.W. Alexander Dr., Research Triangle Park, NC 27709 USA. E-mail: HeacockM@ 123456niehs.nih.gov

                Publication of EHP lies in the public domain and is therefore without copyright. All text from EHP may be reprinted freely. Use of materials published in EHP should be acknowledged (for example, “Reproduced with permission from Environmental Health Perspectives”); pertinent reference information should be provided for the article from which the material was reproduced. Articles from EHP, especially the News section, may contain photographs or illustrations copyrighted by other commercial organizations or individuals that may not be used without obtaining prior approval from the holder of the copyright.

                : 09 January 2015
                : 25 September 2015

                Public health
                Public health


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