A new report by UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) experts Federico Magalini and Ruediger Kuehr details the findings of the first global survey investigating the impacts of e-waste on child health. The online survey was conducted by the UNU‑IAS Operating Unit in Bonn (SCYCLE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) during May–June 2013.
The 139 respondents included epidemiologists, toxicologists, child health experts, policymakers and representatives of companies and non-governmental organizations. The survey assessed their awareness and knowledge of various items of discarded electronic and electrical equipment, and the efficacy of protective devices. It also asked respondents to share their own work related to e-waste management and developmental health.
The results suggest that a gap exists between knowledge of dangerous toxins and of the e-waste products that contain them. For example, respondents rated mercury as the most dangerous substance to human health, but they did not rate energy saving lamps — which can be one of the main sources of mercury in e-waste — as an equally dangerous category of e-waste.
Although e-waste disassembly generally involves simple tools such as hammers, screwdrivers or cutters, a high number of respondents indicated that burning and chemical extraction were the main techniques used, despite these being the main sources of environmental contamination in disassembly.
The survey results also show that a majority of e-waste projects are conducted in Asia and Africa, though the organizations running these programs are mostly based in Asia and Europe. These projects tend to focus on policy issues, rather than on risk or exposure assessments.
Analysis of the projects being conducted by survey participants shows that the health outcomes studied vary considerably, including chemical burns, cancer, and growth retardation.
The survey highlighted the need for global action to tackle health issues related to e-waste management. These efforts, led by WHO, should complement existing activities of other organizations, to use and build on the expertise of complementary disciplines. This will ensure a holistic approach, taking into account the specific challenges of proper e-waste management in different regions of the world. The survey respondents support this approach, with nearly 90 percent indicating interest in joining a WHO network on e-waste exposure and children’s health.
The operating unit SCYCLE (Sustainable Cycles) was formerly part of the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP), which recently merged with the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies to form UNU-IAS. As a result, SCYCLE has been an operating unit of UNU-IAS since the new institute was inaugurated on 1 January 2014.