Waste from end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment, known as e-waste, is a rapidly growing global problem. E-waste contains valuable materials that have an economic value when recycled. Unfortunately, the majority of e-waste is recycled in the unregulated informal sector and results in significant risk for toxic exposures to the recyclers, who are frequently women and children.
The aim of this study was to document the extent of the problems associated with inappropriate e-waste recycling practices.
This was a narrative review that highlighted where e-waste is generated, where it is recycled, the range of adverse environmental exposures, the range of adverse health consequences, and the policy frameworks that are intended to protect vulnerable populations from inappropriate e-waste recycling practices.
The amount of e-waste being generated is increasing rapidly and is compounded by both illegal exportation and inappropriate donation of electronic equipment, especially computers, from developed to developing countries. As little as 25% of e-waste is recycled in formal recycling centers with adequate worker protection. The health consequences of both direct exposures during recycling and indirect exposures through environmental contamination are potentially severe but poorly studied. Policy frameworks aimed at protecting vulnerable populations exist but are not effectively applied.
E-waste recycling is necessary but it should be conducted in a safe and standardized manor. The acceptable risk thresholds for hazardous, secondary e-waste substances should not be different for developing and developed countries. However, the acceptable thresholds should be different for children and adults given the physical differences and pronounced vulnerabilities of children. Improving occupational conditions for all e-waste workers and striving for the eradication of child labor is non-negotiable.