E-waste: A threat to the environment and human health

Today, 14 October 2021 is the International E-Waste Day. Electronic waste or e-waste is currently one of the fastest growing waste streams. This is a leading cause of environmental contamination, posing a severe threat to both the environment and human health. E-waste is a term used to describe electrical and electronic equipment of all types and its parts that have been discarded by the owner as waste. In the 21st century, swift advancement and exponential growth in the electrical and electronic industries, along with changes in consumer lifestyles has resulted in the increase of huge volumes of obsolete waste globally.

The Environmental Interventions Unit (EIU) of icddr,b initiated a project in 2019 funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), which aims to characterise the environmental burden of e-waste and its adverse health consequences to humans in Bangladesh. The study is currently in progress and expected to generate results in 2022.

The global e-waste monitor estimated that in 2019 the quantities of e-waste was 53.6 million metric tons (Mt). This is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030. Asia generated the highest quantity of e-waste in 2019 at 24.9 Mt, followed by the Americas (13.1 Mt), Europe (12 Mt), Africa (2.9 Mt), and Oceania (0.7 Mt). It is estimated that 80 percent of e-waste from developed countries is illegally exported to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where labour costs and disposal are cheap, and laws are less strict or poorly enforced. A wide range of hazardous substances are emitted from e-waste including cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), chlorofluorocarbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, and furans (PCDD/Fs).


Some substances from e-waste are also economically valuable as e-waste recycling can recover valuable materials such as iron, aluminium, copper, silver and rare earth metals. However, excessive exposure during this process can be dangerous as most e-waste recycling is carried out informally, often in unregulated work settings. The recovery of metals is inefficient, incomplete, and mostly done without personal protective equipment or modern technology.

Contaminants from e-waste are non-biodegradable, and can persist in the environment. They may also disturb the ecological balance of the aquatic and terrestrial environments. Humans who are living and working near e-waste recycling sites can be exposed through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption if they come into physical contact with contaminated soil, dust, air, water, and food sources.

Exposure to e-waste poses serious health threats, especially for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and newborns. Numerous studies have revealed that e-waste exposures can cause toxicity in a variety of tissues, organs, and systems, such as the circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, immune, nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems.

The first World Health Organization report on E-waste: Children and Digital Dumpsites calls for “immediate and effective action by exporters, importers and the governments around the world to promote environmentally safe ways of disposal of e-waste and the health and safety of workers, their family and communities involved in e-waste recycling.”  The report also calls on “the health community to take action to reduce the adverse health effects from e-waste, by building health sector capacity to diagnose, monitor and prevent toxic exposure among children and women, raising awareness of the potential co-benefits of more responsible recycling, working with affected communities and advocating for better data and health research on the health risks faced by informal e-waste workers.”

In Bangladesh, the e-waste industry is one of the fastest growing sectors. A study by Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO) showed a linear increase of e-waste in Bangladesh from 2.7 million metric tons in 2010 to 10 million metric tons in 2015. However, there is lack of centralised effort to estimate the quantity, sources, and composition of e-waste being recycled in Bangladesh. Recently, the Government of Bangladesh has approved the Hazardous Waste (e-waste) Management Rules, 2021, under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995, and is expected to be published in the gazette soon.

There is a lack of available information regarding the improper dismantling and processing of e-waste and its harmful effects on human and environmental health in Bangladesh. Understanding the level of environmental exposures and human health outcomes resulting from e-waste could provide an opportunity to generate strategic knowledgeand may increase awareness about the effects of exposure to e-waste recycling.

There is a need to initiate more research to explore appropriate dismantling methods and technologies for safe recycling operations that consider the economic benefits of value recovery processes while ensuring the health and safety of populations that depend on informal e-waste recycling for their livelihoods and survival.

On this special day lets explore if we can re-use, refurbish and recycle electrical and electronic products to protect lives and nature!