E-waste ‘endangers health’ in Chinese town

Transporting e-waste in China Copyright: Flickr/kurzonis

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[ZHENGZHOU AND SHANGHAI] The processing of electronic waste (e-waste) in a southern Chinese town has caused serious health problems to local residents, say scientists.

E-waste consists of end-of-life electronic products such as computers, printers, mobile phones and toys that comprise sophisticated blends of plastics, metals, and other materials.

"The workers use acid to process e-waste or burn it to get rare metals like gold. Sometimes they work without any preventive measures, and the solutions remaining after processing are discharged directly to the environment," said Huo Xia, a professor at Shantou University Medical College, at the annual meeting of the China Association for Science and Technology last month (18 September) in Zhengzhou.

Processing both imported and domestic e-waste to extract valuable metals for sale or reuse is the dominant industry in Guiyu, a town in the Guangdong province of southern China.

Studies have indicated that the industry has dramatically increased Guiyu workers’ and residents’ exposure to toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. 

In one of their five-year studies, published in Environmental Research earlier this year, Huo and colleagues compared the blood lead levels (BLLs) and blood cadmium levels (BCLs) of 154 Guiyu children under eight years of age with 124 children of the same age from Chendian, a town that does not engage in e-waste processing.

They found that 70.8 per cent of the children in Guiyu had BLLs at the level of lead poisoning, compared with 38.7 per cent of Chendian children.

BCLs of Guiyu children were also significantly higher — 20.1 per cent compared to 7.3 per cent of Chendian children.

In a separate unpublished study presented at the meeting, the team set up a control group using data from pregnant women in suburban areas of Xiamen, Fujian Province, 200 kilometres away from Guiyu and not associated with e-waste.

They found that, between 2003 and 2007, the rate of premature delivery, foetus death and low birth weight in Guiyu were all significantly higher than in the control group. The foetus death rate in Guiyu was around six times higher than in the control group, while premature delivery was around 62 per cent higher.

"The public health threat from the e-waste industry is real, and measures must be taken to cope with it," Huo told SciDev.Net.

The high profit of e-waste processing continues to attract people, despite the health risks, says Gu Jiang, dean of the Shantou University Medical College. For example, processing one tonne of e-waste could yield 450 grams of gold and 200 kilograms of lead.


Environmental Research 108, 15 (2008)