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Study: E-waste recycling poisons people with heavy metals

Researchers find high levels of heavy metals in a Chinese town that processes circuit boards with 'crude' recycling techniques.

A child in Guiyu, China where a high volume of electronic waste is processed.

A new study highlights the toll that electronic waste is taking on the people and places where large-scale recycling is done.

The scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology published results of a study that measured the level of heavy metals in Guiyu, China, a village heavily involved in processing discarded electronic products like PCs.

Researchers measured the levels of heavy metals that are released by people using "crude" processing techniques of electronic circuit boards.

From the summary:

Levels at the schoolyard and food market showed that public places were adversely impacted. Risk assessment predicted that Pb (lead) and Cu (copper) originating from circuit board recycling have the potential to pose serious health risks to workers and local residents of Guiyu, especially children, and warrants an urgent investigation into heavy metal related health impacts. The potential environmental and human health consequences due to uncontrolled e-waste recycling in Guiyu serves as a case study for other countries involved in similar crude recycling activities.

The New York Times expands on the findings a bit in this story: "Recycling That Harms the Environment and People."

For a more graphic look at how e-waste is adversely affecting people and environments in China and Africa, I suggest this National Geographic feature, "High-Tech Trash," which ran earlier this year.

Seeing the photos of workers burning cables and circuit boards, releasing neurotoxins, is a frightening sight. The National Geographic article finishes with the conclusion that exporting electronic waste to developing countries like China results in contaminated products exported back to richer countries.

Ultimately, shipping e-waste overseas may be no bargain even for the developed world. In 2006, Jeffrey Weidenhamer, a chemist at Ashland University in Ohio, bought some cheap, Chinese-made jewelry at a local dollar store for his class to analyze. That the jewelry contained high amounts of lead was distressing, but hardly a surprise; Chinese-made leaded jewelry is all too commonly marketed in the U.S. More revealing were the amounts of copper and tin alloyed with the lead.

"The U.S. right now is shipping large quantities of leaded materials to China, and China is the world's major manufacturing center," Weidenhamer says. "It's not all that surprising things are coming full circle and now we're getting contaminated products back." In a global economy, out of sight will not stay out of mind for long.

For some photos from Guiyu, see this CNET gallery from 2005: "Photos: E-waste in a Chinese scrapyard." That Chinese village is not alone, however; see also "Photos: E-waste piles up in Nigeria," and other previous coverage on the subject.