Electronic Waste and Public Health




The burden of electronic waste is becoming a global public health concern. This is more so as scientific and technological innovations have become integral parts of the processes for preserving the universal principles of globalisation. Many have argued that for the world to continue to bear its global village toga, advances in science and technology must be such that make life easier and better for citizens of the earth. Moreover, one of such ways is getting smarter through digital electronic technology. Sadly, the smarter we get in the world, the more problems we create for our environment through pollution with electronic waste.

Used electrical and electronic appliances, such as computers, smartphones, speakers, monitors, power banks, smart TVs and so on, will continue to move from country to country, thereby posing threats to human health through poor recycling systems. It is also important to note here that with shorter lifespans and very limited repair options, used electrical and electronic appliances are often condemned to be recycled or disposed of as waste.

Another factor contributing to this global anomaly is the electronics industry’s strategy of planned obsolescence, which leaves gadgets failing with time and users having no other option than to buy newer versions. This strategy is fuelling the rise in the volume of e-waste generation all over the world.

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Researchers have warned of the dangers inherent in electronic waste and their adverse effects on human health, especially at their disposal and recycling points. It has been established that electronic waste contains very toxic components that are dangerous to human health, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium and lithium which have been linked with brain, heart, liver, kidney and skeletal system damage.

In 2001, the world generated a total of 57.4 million metric tonnes of e-waste, with an average yearly growth potential of 2 million metric tonnes. Most of this was generated in China, the United States and India. While there is over 347 million metric tonnes of unrecycled e-waste on earth in 2023, only about 17.4 per cent of this is known to be collected and properly recycled. The global e-waste recycling market was valued at $49,880 million in 2020, with Estonia, Norway, and Iceland having the highest e-waste recycling rates.

In Nigeria, the mismanagement of e-waste is a major public health burden that seems not to be getting the required level of attention. Famed for its staggering population with a Multidimensional Poverty Index of 133 million people, most Nigerians cannot afford brand new electrical and electronic appliances, hence their preference for second-hand or fairly-used ones, which come with the health hazards enumerated earlier.

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According to estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2019, Nigeria generated N64.2 billion worth of electronic waste, ranking second in Africa, after Egypt. The problem however, is that the waste generated in the country coupled with what is being imported is seriously contaminating the environment with toxic chemicals.

In major cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja that parade second-hand electrical and electronic markets, even on walkways and street sides, the health implications of these markets cannot be discountenanced. The indiscriminate e-waste recycling systems in Nigeria and the many dumpsites located in densely-populated residential areas make the problem even more worrisome, as children and women are often more grossly affected.

Nigeria lacks a standard recycling system, as well as effective management policies. Thus, electronic waste materials are inappropriately dumped and burnt or stored in houses and offices, raising their propensity to pollute the environment, to the extent that even underground water is affected.

Experts in healthcare have linked the consumption of contaminated water to many diseases. In 2020, there was a report by Okunola, et al (2019) that highlighted the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in the blood of children exposed to e-waste, leading to significant DNA damage. According to the report, “…spontaneous abortion and cancer were reported by women working in and living close to the two largest electronic markets in Lagos. Spontaneous abortion and cancer accounted for 5.3 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, of the health problems reported in this study.”

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While it is true and economically beneficial that the Nigerian government can rake in revenue from the country’s e-waste market, it is also imperative that universal best practice is adopted, as seen in countries like Estonia, Norway and Iceland, with their standard acceptable recycling practices, which aim to safeguard public health and the environment.

The Nigerian government should also check the indiscriminate disposal of waste through the National Environmental Standards Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), while also separating residential areas from electronic markets to prevent exposure of residents to contaminants.

A legislation for tackling electronic wastes in Nigeria becomes urgently expedient, while established rules, such as the European Union directives and draft legislation of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, should be guidelines. Above all, citizens should be educated more on the impact of e-waste on their health and the environment.




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