Toxic "E-Waste" Gets Cached in Poor Nations, Report Says

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"Forty-five percent of the junk that's coming in [to Lagos] is coming from the United States," he said. "Another 45 percent comes from Europe, and the other 10 percent from Japan and Israel."

The European Union, Israel, Japan, and the United States have signed the Basel Convention, which forbids countries from exporting hazardous waste, including electronics.

"There is some responsibility that the developing nations must take upon themselves," Gutierrez said. But, he added, "a greater element of this responsibility should fall on the exporting state."

China, for example, has become a cache for vast amounts of e-waste. The nation is beginning to take action to stem the flow of hazardous material across its borders.

"The Chinese government, after many years of denial, is finally beginning to take the helm," said Ted Smith, founder and senior strategist of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Gutierrez noted that even if China enforces its existing laws and keeps e-waste out, "it will flow to the next country with lax environmental standards." E-waste, he said, "follows the path of least economic resistance."

"That's why we need to regulate this at the source end," Smith agreed. Laws should prevent e-waste exportation and require manufacturers to shoulder the responsibility of recycling their products in the most cost-effective manner, he said.

Such a shift would make electronics more expensive in the short term, he acknowledged, but environmental damage and health hazards would be minimized.

Gutierrez added that as many toxic compounds as possible should be banned from new electronics. Europe has already banned lead, cadmium, and a half dozen other materials still permitted in U.S. products.

Problems Ahead

Gordon Davy, an engineer with technology firm Northrop Grumman in Baltimore, Maryland, said such regulation would be coercive.

Consumers in developed countries would have to pay more for new electronics, and poor laborers elsewhere would lose the income they now get from stripping apart dead electronics.

Davy also questions whether e-waste is harming people.

"Pollution in the third world is clearly deplorable," he said. "But as far as health consequences [of e-waste is concerned], the environmental activists need to provide supporting evidence. They need to identify and count their victims."

Gutierrez countered, "We're dealing with toxic substances that have been studied to death. We need not come up with further studies. It would be an overanalysis of an obvious problem."

"The e-waste crisis is relatively young," he said. "The problems [that people] are being exposed to will germinate for years." By the time chronic diseases such as cancer arise, it will be too late to avert a public-health disaster, he said.

Smith, of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, concurred. "Right now [e-waste] doesn't seem to be causing any enormous environmental hazards. But over the next several generations it's going to create a problem."

University of Maryland student Haibing Ma is planning ahead. The graduate student from China aims to develop a framework that could help his homeland deal with its e-waste problem.

While working toward a solution, Ma is loath to add to the problem, so he purchased his computers from Hewlett Packard.

That manufacturer is one of several that have announced so-called takeback policies, promising to safely dispose of obsolete equipment returned by consumers.

"I mailed one monitor back to HP last semester," Ma said. "But the [shipping] charge … we pay ourselves."

With other electronics, manufacturers provide no such choice.

"The television is the problem," Ma said. "We have so many different producers, and none of them have a clear takeback policy."

When his TV dies, Ma says, he'll put it in the waste bin. "We don't know where it will go."

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