Pressure groups Basel Action Network (BAN) and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), supported by Greenpeace China, Toxics Link India and SCOPE Pakistan, have investigated this export trade, which they say ends with the e-waste being processed in operations that are extremely harmful to human health and the environment.

The report, Exporting harm: the high-tech trashing of Asia, documents a series of case studies, including an investigation that covered an area known as Guiyu in Guangdong Province, China. Here, investigators found that around 100,000 poor migrant workers were being employed to break apart and process obsolete computers, mainly brought in from North America.

The report notes: “The operations involve men, women and children toiling under primitive conditions, often unaware of the health and environmental hazards involved in operations which include open burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead-laden cathode ray tubes.”

The investigators found labourers dismantling highly toxic printed circuit boards by slapping them against rocks to remove lead solder. The most sophisticated recycling equipment they saw during their time in the province was an electric drill. The migrant workers get on average US$1.50 a day for their work.

The investigators also saw many tons of e-waste dumped along rivers, in fields and irrigation channels for rice fields. Pollution levels in the area are so high that well water is undrinkable, and potable water has to be brought in by truck from 30km away. In one instance, groundwater in a ‘recycling’ area exceeded World Health Organisation limits by 190 times. A sediment sample taken near a river showed lead 212 times higher than what would be treated as hazardous waste if it had been dredged from the Rhine in the Netherlands, the report adds.

Barium was found at levels almost ten times higher than a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) threshold for environmental risk in soil. Tin was found at levels 152 times the EPA threshold and chromium in one sample was at levels 1,338 times the EPA threshold level. The report said: “It is extremely likely that due to the presence of PVC or brominated flame retardants in wire insulation, the emissions and ashes from such burning will contain high levels of both brominated and chlorinated dioxins and furans – two of the most deadly persistent organic pollutants (POPs).”

“We found a cyber-age nightmare,” said BAN coordinator Jim Puckett. “They call this recycling, but it’s really dumping by another name. Yet to our horror, we further discovered that rather than banning it, the United States government is actually encouraging this ugly trade in order to avoid finding real solutions to the massive tide of obsolete computer waste generated in the US daily.”

BAN pointed out that the US is the only developed country that has failed to ratify the Basel Convention, a UN environmental treaty, which set up a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from developed countries to developing countries. The US, BAN added, has exempted toxic wastes from its own internal laws on exports, because the materials are claimed to be for recycling.

The pressure groups are calling on the US to immediately implement the Basel Convention and to solve e-waste problems upstream by making electronics goods manufacturers set up recycling programmes, cut toxic materials and design with upgrades, long life and recycling in mind.

“Consumers in the US have been the principal beneficiaries of the high-tech revolution and we simply can’t allow the resulting high environmental price to be pushed off onto others,” said Ted Smith, executive director of SVTC. “Rather than sweeping our e-waste crisis out the back door by exporting it to the poor of the world, we have got to address it square in the face and solve it at home, in this country, at its manufacturing source.”

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