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Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Ghana, the Waste Dump
40 million tonnes of electric and electronic waste (also known as e-waste) are produced worldwide every year. That is boundless heaps of refrigerators, computers, television sets, ovens, telephones, air conditioning units, lamps, toasters and other electric and electronic devices, with a total weight equal to seven times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The greatest producers of e-waste per person are the United States and the European Union, while developing countries, such as China, are producing an ever-increasing amount. Only a small part of this waste – about 15.5% in 2014 – is recycled with methods that are efficient and environmentally safe. Researchers from the University of Ghana explained that "the treatment of e-waste in full respect of developed countries’ environmental laws increases its costs, and highly polluting procedures will tend to migrate towards developing countries, where there are no such laws".
Ghana is an important centre for receiving, re-using, recovering and disposing of electronic waste. Accra, the capital, hosts a thriving second-hand market, a sprawling network of repair shops, and a range of activities which attempt to tap into the full potential of e-waste. And yet, it is also the location of an enormous and heavily polluted electronic waste dumpsite. A significant part of Ghana’s e-waste is transported to Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra. Here, men and children extract copper, aluminium and other materials – using methods that are harmful to health and the environment – which are to be shipped back towards the factories and refineries in developed countries. To call Agbogbloshie "the largest electronic waste dump in Africa" is - paradoxically - an understatement: it is actually a city within the city. This is where the poorest classes of Accra have spent years dismantling, recovering, weighing and reselling parts and metals extracted from the scrapped devices and from the heaps of electronic waste.
"What was once a green and fruitful landscape is now a graveyard of plastics and skeletons of abandoned appliances," explains Mike Anane, an environmental activist from Accra. "The e-waste boys burn hundreds of kilos of electric cables to extract the copper and then resell it for just a few cedis per kilogram. The toxic fumes rise into the sky, poison the air and then settle on the soil and on the vegetables sold at the market," explains Anane. The consequences fall directly on the inhabitants’ shoulders. "Our boys have very serious health problems," says Wolfgang Mac-Din, of founder of Help the African Child, a foundation that supports Agbogbloshie’s children, providing them with free schooling and protection masks, among other things. "Some of them, like Fuseini, 19 years old, or Ben, 16 years old, we found already dead. Others have cancer."
A team of researchers from Ghana and the United States have collected and analysed blood samples from Agbogbloshie workers. "The samples have revealed high levels of lead," explains team researcher Onallia Osei, "and the amount of time in which one is exposed to e-waste seems to determine the amount of lead present in the blood." (International growth centre)
Traces of iron, lead and antimony have been detected in the e-waste boys’ urine samples. Scientists speculate that these heavy metals originate from the fish and seafood around which the eating habits of Agbogbloshie’s inhabitants are based. (Science of The Total Environment – Volume 424, 2012)
Disturbing amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) have emerged from the analysis of breast milk in the Agbogbloshie area. PCBs are highly toxic compounds found in old electrical appliances. The analysed samples have shown levels ranging from two to 34 times the threshold allowed by international PCB standards. (Environment International, 2011)
An air control station installed in the Agbogbloshie dumpsite has detected iron, lead and copper. 1.5 milligrams per cubic metre of copper (the allowed threshold is 1.0 mg), 7.8mg/ m³ of iron (threshold: 5.0) and 0.72 mg/ m³ of lead (threshold: 0.15) have been found. These thresholds are meant for work areas, but Agbogbloshie is actually an entire area of Accra with about 90,000 inhabitants. (Journal of Health and Pollution, 2011)
Out of 100 soil samples collected in Agbogbloshie, more than half have shown an amount of lead which is over twice as much as the standards allowed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). The detected values range from a minimum of 135 ppm (parts-per-million) to a maximum of 18.125 ppm. The threshold indicated in the USEPA guidelines is of 400 ppm. (Journal of Health and Pollution, 2011)