Problems Associated with Electronic Waste (e-waste)

Problems Associated with Electronic Waste (e-waste)




            The manufacture of EEE (electrical and electronic equipment) is amongst the fastest growing industries globally, a trend that has been observed over the past two decades (Bhutta, Omar & Yang 2011).   The significant rise in the production and consumption of EEE has been triggered by rapid economic growth, an increase in demand for consumer goods, and urbanization (Bhutta et al. 2011). As the production and consumption of EEE increases, so does the amount of e-waste (electronic waste) generated daily across the globe (WHO 2016).  The informal sector in emerging and industrialized countries have turned to recycling of certain valuable components of e-waste as a means of generating income. Nonetheless, the primitive techniques employed by the informal sector in recycling these elements such as copper and gold (for example burning cables) exposes the population to diverse hazardous substances (WHO 2016). E-waste is thus linked to various health risks that could happen when humans come into contact with such harmful materials as lead, chromium. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenlys), and cadmium, among others (Bhutta et al. 2011). This happens after inhaling toxic fumes. E-wastes also contain toxic by-products that may also be a risk to human health, not to mention the increased risk of injury when dismantling electrical equipment.


            E-waste can be loosely described as any information technology hardware, business, and consumer electronics, or white goods, whose useful life has almost come to an end. According to Izatt (2016), e-waste can be defined as “a broad and growing range of electronic devices ranging from large household devices such as refrigerators, air conditioners, cell phones, personal stereo, and consumer electronics to computers which have been discarded by their owners” (p. 53). Elsewhere,   Sinha-Khetriwal (14) opines that e-waste can be described as any electrical powered appliance whose useful life has come to an end.  

            McAlister (2013) notes that nearly 40 million metric tons of e-waste are generated worldwide every year. Almost 13 percent of this e-waste undergoes recycling, mainly in developing nations. The European Union (EU) accounts for 9 million tons of e-waste produced globally every year. This waste is mainly in the form of discarded computers, televisions, and cellphones, among other electronics (McAllister 2013).   E-waste is viewed as being of global significance and as such, it has raised concerns since many of its elements are non-biodegradable and toxic.  On account of these concerns, many European nations banned the inclusion of e-waste in landfills (Leung et la. 2008). A study conducted by Zheng et al. (2013) found significant levels of heavy metals in water, house dust, and food from a sample of residents living near an e-waste recycling plant in a region in China. Examples of the heavy metals measured included Zinc, Lead, Cadmium, and Nickel. These heavy metals, especially Lead, are implicated with potential cancer risks.

            Other surveys that have been conducted in recent years shows that much pf the e-waste in the US  is mainly exported to developing countries where it is disposed of unsafely, thus causing health and environmental problems (McAllister 2013). Various developing countries including the UK have instituted legislation that require manufacturers to implement e-waste disposal mechanisms. However, there have been reports of lacklustre implementing of such laws, while recycling or e-waste in developing countries is also costly and complicated (Bhutta et al. 2011). Consequently, developing countries are a dumping ground for e-waste form the developed countries, and this has health and environmental implications.

Health and environmental impact of e-waste

            EEEs consist of various components, some of which carry toxic substances. These toxic substances have been shown to result in undesirable effect on the environment and human health in case they are not handled appropriately ( Leung et al. 2008).  Such hazards usually come about owing to inappropriate disposal and recycling processes utilised (Robinson 2009). Burning or recycling of e-waste could result in grave consequences for individuals living in close proximity to where these activities are carried out. Waste from grey goods is more toxic in comparison with brown and white goods.  According to Sinha (2007), a computer has high levels of such toxic chemicals as cadmium, beryllium, phosphor compounds, mercury and lead.


            Mercury from e-waste is implicated with damage to the peripheral and nervous systems, the genitourinary system, and the fetus (Leung et al. 2008).  Contamination of water with inorganic mercury from e-waste changes the mercury into methylated mercury. This compound can then accumulate into the fauna, especially fish and eventually, find its way into humans upon consumption (Harrington & Baker 2003;  Hu & Speizer 2001).


            Accumulation of lead has toxic effects on different body systems, including the peripheral and central nervous systems (Robinson 2009), the genitourinary system , the hemipoietic system, and the reproductive system (Harrington & Baker 2003).  


            Cadmium is another toxic compound found in the e-waste and which can accumulate in the human body over time, following exposure to improperly disposed e-waste. The most affected body part is the kidney. However cadmium and beryllium have also been identified as playing a role in carcinogenicity ((Pruss-Ustun & Corvalan 2006; Stewart & Kliehues 2003) PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)

            PAHs affects skin, bladder and lungs. Evidence from epidemiological studies carried out in the past to asses occupational exposure to PAH reveal that PAHs play a role in the generation of lung and skin cancers (Pruss-Ustun & Corvalan 2006; Stewart & Kliehues 2003)


            Considering that e-waste is an issue of global significance in terms of health and environmental impact, there is a dire need to find sustainable solutions to the problem. From a technical perspective, we can address the e-waste crisis by by adopting precautionary principles or curbing the problem at the manufacturing source. To do so, manufacturers need to make use of sustainable product designs, in addition to adopting waste reduction techniques. They include: inventory management, volume reduction, recovery and reuse, and modifying the production process (Bhutta et al. 2011).

            On the other hand, sustainable product design entails the use of renewable energy and materials, adopting green packaging alternatives, and the use of biodegradable material in the development of electronic components.  


            E-waste is a global problem, with obvious negative health and environmental effects. If at all we are to eliminate or drastically minimise these challenges, there is need to create public awareness on the problem. More important, respective governments should develop policy-level and technical interventions to encourage manufacturers to use sustainable product designs and renewable materials and energy. The use of biodegradable materials would also help to minimise e-waste and hopefully, improve the negative health and environmental effects. 





Bhutta MKS, Omar A & Yang X (2011). Electronic Waste: A Growing Concern in Today's Environment. [Online]. Available at:  https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecri/2011/474230/ [Accessed 05 Dec. 2016]. 

Harrington JM & Baker EL (2003). Occupational and environmental health and safety. In: David AW, Timothy MC, John DF, Edward JB, editors. Oxford Textbook of Medicine. 4th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hu H & Speizer FE (2001). Specific environmental and occupational hazards. In: Braunwald E, Fausi AS, Kasper DL, et al., editors. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 15th edition. Vol 2. McGraw-Hill Inc.

Izatt RM (2016). Metal Sustainability: Global Challenges, Consequences, and Prospects. New York: John Wiley &b Sons.

McAllister L (2013). The Human and Environmental Effects of E-Waste. [Online]. Available at:   http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2013/e-waste.aspx [Accessed 04 Dec. 2016] 

Leung AOW et al. (2008),' Heavy Metals Concentrations of Surface Dust From E-Waste Recycling and its Human Health Implications in Southeast China', Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 42, no. 7, pp. 2674-80.

Pruss-Ustun A & Corvalan C (2006). Preventing disease through healthy environments: Towards an estimate of environmental burden of disease. WHO Publication.

Sinha S (2007). Downside of the Digital Revolution. [Online]. Available at: http://www.toxicslink.org/art-view.php?id=124. [Accessed 04 Dec. 2016].

Sinha-Khetriwal D, Kraeuchib P & Schwaninger M (2005),'A comparison of electronic waste recycling in Switzerland and in India', Environmental Impact Assessment Review, vol. 25, pp. 492-504.

Robinson BH (2009),'E-Waste: An Assessment of Global Production and Environmental Impacts', Science of the Total Environment, vol. 408, no. 2, pp. 183-91.

WHO (2016). Electronic waste. [Online]. Available at:  http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/ewaste/en/ [Accessed 03 Dec. 2016].  

Zheng J, Chen KH, Yan X, Chen SJ, Hu GC, Peng XW, et al. (2013),' Heavy metals in food, house dust, and water from an e-waste recycling area in South China and the potential risk to human health', Ecotoxicol Environ Saf., vol. 96, pp. 205-212. 



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