The Disposable People Who Process Our Toxic E-Waste

ToxiCity: A Graveyard for Electronics and People

RT (2017)

Film Review

Toxic e-waste is equally poisonous to the planet and the third world poor who are forced to process it for a living. The only truly humane and sustainable solution to toxic e-waste is to force big tech giants like Apple, Google and Dell (and the billionaires who run them) to assume responsibility for end-of-life disposal, instead of externalizing this cost to the rest of us.

This documentary is about Agbogbloshie in Acra Ghana, the largest toxic waste dump in the world, and the men, women and children who pick through electronic waste from Asia, the US, Australia and western Europe. Although it’s illegal to employ child labor or import e-waste in Ghana, these laws are never enforced.

The filmmakers interview various “waste managers” who run the site, as well as a 10 year old boy, a fifteen year old girl and the “waste site coordinator.”  The latter  adjudicates disputes and deals with the police when fights break out. The 10 year old (an orphan) earns about $8-10 a days from the scrap metal he collects. This is enough to buy two meals. The 15-year-old was forced to leave school because her parents had no money to pay for her school fees, uniform or textbooks. She prepares food to sell to other scavengers and hopes to return to school and become a nurse.

Scavenging e-waste among the burning rubber and plastics at Agbogbloshie is a highly dangerous occupation due to the high risk of cadmium and lead toxicity. Doctors at a nearly clinic also report an increased incidence of respiratory infection among children who live and work there.

 

Is Lipstick Killing Us?

lipstick

A study in the May 2, 2013 Environmental Health Perspectives reveals that commercial lipstick and lip gloss contain potentially hazardous levels of heavy metals, such as aluminum, cadmium, chromium and manganese. The study also notes that young people (i.e. preteens and teenagers) absorb heavy metals at higher rates than adults.

The article notes that the last decade has seen considerable publicity regarding lead (which causes brain damage, particularly in children and young people) contained in lip products. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), lead in lipstick is merely an impurity, owing to high levels of lead in the environment.  Environmental researchers state otherwise. They assert that lead-containing color pigments are the main source of lead in lipstick.

At present the FDA chooses not to regulate the amount of lead or other metals in cosmetics. They do set a maximum allowable lead concentration in candy of 0.1 ppm (1 mg/kg). As their own figures indicate, the lead levels in some popular brands of lipstick and lip gloss greatly exceed 0.1 ppm. Although most women don’t knowingly eat lipstick, they inadvertently swallow it and absorb it through mucous membranes in the mouth. Moreover some women reapply it as often as 10-12 times a day.

As the authors point out, the European Union Cosmetics Directive makes it illegal to manufacture, import or sell any cosmetic products with detectable levels of lead, cadmium, chromium or other heavy metals harmful to human health.

Cadmium is a known human carcinogen associated with lung cancer and respiratory system damage, kidney and bone impairments. Animal studies have shown that exposure to cadmium during pregnancy can result in low birth weights, skeletal deformities and behavior and learning problems

Chromium is also a known human carcinogen; inhalation causes lung cancer and oral exposure through drinking water has been linked with increased stomach tumors.

The EHP paper indicates that evidence linking manganese with neurological and neurobehavioral problems in children is still inconclusive. However there are numerous studies linking high manganese levels to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aheh.200400556/abstract

http://www.alzforum.org/new/detail.asp?id=2770

http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijad/2011/607543/ref/

Surely it’s high time for the US to follow Europe’s example and adopt the Precautionary Principle. Under the Precautionary Principle, the burden would be on manufacturers to prove their products are safe as a condition of bringing them to market. At present, the obligation is on women to prove they’re unsafe.

photo credit: Auntie P via photopin cc

 

China’s Ecological Tragedy

when a billion

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy it

 By Jonathan Watts (2010 Faber and Faber)

 Book Review

 (Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 1/5 of China’s farmland is contaminated with heavy metals, such as arsenic and cadmium, that are absorbed by rice and very damaging to human health.) 

The major premise of When a Billion Chinese Jump is the enormous threat China’s burgeoning middle class poses to climate stability with their insatiable demand for gas-guzzling cars and energy-intensive homes and consumer goods.

The reader comes away with an overall impression of an environmental war zone: severely contaminated rivers, aquifer depletion, clear cut forests, smog, landslides, toxic waste-related cancer villages, and mass species extinction

Watts makes no secret of his belief that catastrophic climate change can’t be prevented – no matter what the rest of the world does – unless China drastically curbs its reliance on coal for energy production.

China: the West’s Industrial Cesspool

Watts traces a variety of political, economic, and philosophical influences that have led to China’s current ecological disaster. Ironically the key factor behind the country’s rapid development – the outsourcing of western industry – is number one on the list. For the past thirty years, western companies have been exporting their industrial base to China and other Asian countries to exploit low labor costs. They have simultaneously exported the major ecological damage associated with heavy industry – along with mountains of defunct electronic devices for end-of-life disposal.

The second major cause of China’s ecological nightmare is the reality that most of provincial China operates outside the law. Despite China’s “totalitarian” central government real power, according to Watts, rests in a middle band of local party chiefs, factory owners, and foreign investors and outsourcers.

He believes centralized control of China began its decline with Mao’s death. In his view, each successive government is more politically “timid” than the previous. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has developed many far-sighted environmental regulations that the Politburo is afraid of enforcing at a regional and local level. They are terrified of imposing any measures that might impair development. Without elections, the central government has no popular mandate. This means that surging development and nationalism are the only source of their legitimacy.

An interesting side effect of this endemic corruption is that illegal protests and riots – usually over crop and health damage caused by pollutions – are extremely common. In most cases, rioting is the only way to ensure environmental protections are enforced.

The Chinese Environmental Movement

The book’s most interesting chapter concerns the Chinese environmental movement. When Beijing shut down the pro-democracy movement after the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre, many pro-democracy advocates found it was safer to transplant their activism to the environmental movement. Especially after President Hu Jintao explicitly called for greater public, NGO (non-governmental organization) and journalistic oversight to expose companies that breach environmental regulations.

Despite nominal central support for greater openness and transparency, Chinese environmentalists still play a cat and mouse game with government authorities. National environmental networks have been forbidden since 2008, owing to deep Politburo suspicion of the role the CIA played in instigating the 2004-2005 color revolutions in Eastern Europe.

Watts talks about an invisible line circumscribing acceptable activism – activists, journalists and lawyers don’t know where the line is till they cross it and local security officials beat them up and throw them in jail.