Are electronic waste recyclers in the informal sector aware of the health risks they are exposed to daily? This article answers the question. This article answers the question.
Discarded equipment such as phones, computers, refrigerators, televisions, other electrical electronics equipment (EEE) collectively referred to as electronic waste (e-waste) contain substances that are hazardous to health and environment if inadequately treated or improperly disposed of.
Across the world, electronic or electrical devices have become indispensable in our daily lives. This growing importance and demand for electronic or electrical devices coupled with rising obsolescence due to rapid technological advancements and decreasing lifetime of EEE has led to an exponential increase in the volume of e-waste generated. Globally, in 2017, about 45 million metric tonnes were generated, and an estimate of 52 million metric tons will be generated by 2021.
Quantity of e-waste internally generated in Nigeria is increasing as more people use electrical electronics equipment(EEE). In Nigeria, many people own more than one information and communication technology (ICT) device such as mobile phones, computers, televisions, and other devices and their replacement cycles are becoming shorter, hence the large quantity of e-waste generated in Nigeria.
Informal work is defined as all economic activities by workers and economic units that are in law or in practice not or insuffiiciently covered by formal arrangements, i.e., beyond the reach of formal laws. Workers are casually employed, often by family members or are self-employed and do not have job security or benefiit from social protection. In addition, many of them are not aware of available protections or their legal rights. In Nigeria, the informal sector is vast and cuts across several different economic fields.
Informal e-waste recycling in Nigeria happens on a large scale by e-waste workers (scavengers, repairers, dismantles, burners and scrap dealers). Nigeria imports the largest volume of new and used electronic and electrical equipment in Africa, being a hub for neighboring countries. About 50% of electronics used in Nigeria are imported as second-hand (used) electronics. In 2014, Nigeria generated 219 kilo tonnes. In 2016, the e-waste generated increased to 277 kilo tonnes, in 2017, it increased again to 290 kilo tonnes of electronic waste, a 170% increase from 2009, yet a lot of non-functional electronics also stockpiled in drawers in offices and homes, thus unaccounted for. A large and informal recycling sector disposes of an estimated 52,000 tonnes of brominated plastics, 4,000 tonnes of lead, 80 tonnes of cadmium and 0.3 tonnes of mercury are burned or dumped every year. An estimated additional 80,000 tonnes of plastics are burnt in the open, generating dioxins and furans.
Informal recycling involves labor-intensive manual dismantling, isolation of materials, open burning of plastics from electronics, heating of circuit boards, and the remaining are dumped at the open dumpsites or landfills. These unsafe activities are carried out using crude methods to recover valuable materials without or with very little technology to minimize exposure to hazardous substances, thus allowing the emission of dangerous chemicals. Occupational safety and environmental protection are clearly not prioritized. These activities have negative impacts on the health of the workers and people (including pregnant women and children) around the e-waste recycling vicinity and on the environment, polluting the soil, air, dust, water, considering that 70% of water sources in Nigeria is from individual boreholes. The chemicals from the e-waste can also affect the plants and animals in the environment (soil and water). The chemicals can also bio-accumulate in the food chain and end up in fish, meat, eggs, and milk, potentially causing health problems for humans.
However, e-waste recycling is rapidly growing and has created (1) many employment and income opportunities; (2) affordable access to electronics and (3) parts used for repairs; (4) a continuous supply of raw materials to manufacturers; (5) conservation of natural resources and (6) conservation of energy required to manufacture new electronics from virgin resources. The informal e-waste recycling is on-going because Nigeria lacks the infrastructure for e-waste recycling, there is a weak enforcement of the legislation, and people are not aware of the dangers associated with informal or unsafe recycling of e-waste.
Bearing in mind the consequences of unsafe e- waste recycling in Nigeria, we carried out a research to find answers to the following questions. Are the e-waste workers aware of these legislation and policies? Are e-waste workers aware of the dangers associated with their daily jobs? Do they know that their jobs affect their health and the environment as they struggle for livelihood for themselves and their families? Nigerians are happy people who also love quality life, but why are people engaged in jobs that are dangerous to their health? Are the workers exposed to adverse health risks? Is the environment contaminated as a result of e-waste recycling?
Our findings reveal that e- waste recycling in Nigeria is carried out in the informal sector in an unregulated and organized manner. A total of 279 e-waste workers were interviewed. They are mostly young men, with a mean age of 30±9 years. Most of them work for about 10 hours daily for 6 days a week. The work environment and conditions of the e-waste workers result in direct exposures to hazardous substances. informal workers often underestimate the health risks associated with their jobs. They are more concerned about making more money, and less about their health. There was a high injury prevalence of 38% in 1week. Despite the high occurrence of injury, 92% of the workers do not use any personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, nose mask, boot, work cloths, helmet etc. The main reasons for not using PPE were ‘perceived unimportant, discomfort, cost and unavailability. The majority (88%) of e -waste workers are unaware that e-waste contains hazardous chemicals which could pose a risk to their health. The occupational Health risk awareness level of the e-waste workers were significantly lower compared with their counterparts in the same informal sector. Compared to their counterparts, the e-waste workers had poorer knowledge (88%), more negative attitudes (74%), and more unsafe practices (58%) regarding the potential health risks inherent in their jobs. Only 43% of e-waste workers could mention at least one PPE needed for their job. The majority (77%) of the e-waste workers did not know the likely illnesses they can contract as a result of their jobs and do not think that that substances they are exposed to at work can pose any health risk. In addition, they did not think that they can get ill from their jobs, but from other sources unrelated to their work or work environment.
How can this be changed?
What can we do differently to transform this situation?
Is it possible to end this problem without taking away the source of livelihood for several individuals in Nigeria?