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E-waste, a major threat to environment

June 24, 2005 11:59 IST

Computers causing pollution – it is hard to believe but experts say that discarded computers or e-waste contain many toxic materials - and is fast emerging as a major health and environment hazard in India.

According to a study, every year over 30 million computers are discarded in the United States of America alone, and a large chunk of it ends up in India.

Add to this, the waste generated by our own electronics industry led by the ever growing personal computers is an environmental disaster of unimagined proportions.

"There is total lack of awareness about hazardous nature of e-wastes. Most often e-waste is mixed with municipal waste and this is a cause for serious concern" says T V Ramachandra of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

According to the Basel Convention to which India is also a signatory, it is illegal to export or import e-waste. It also calls for effective steps to control e-waste within the boundaries of the countries concerned. But India has only paid a lip service to this international agreement.

Early last year, an extensive report on e-waste and its mismanagement was published by Toxics Link, an environmental NGO. The report estimated that, every year around 1.5 million computers get outdated just in India and most of these end up as e-waste.                                                                                            

The report called for immediate steps to stem further deterioration in the situation. A national workshop on electronic waste management was organised by the Central Pollution Control Board in which it was decided to form a working group to look into all the issues and one year down the line, the working group is yet to submit its report.

Ravi Agrawal, director of Toxics Link and one of the members of the working group, blames the industry for its "total apathy" towards e-waste and its management.

"Industry is absolutely non-responsive. Recently we held a discussion with officials of a major industry players involved in production of PCs on e-waste. They said they didn't know what they had to do in this regard! And I think the industry doesn't want to do anything" rues Agrawal.

If the organised sector is so unresponsive, one can imagine the state of the largely unorganised and unregulated e-scrap importers and dealers. Some of the major e-scrap junk yards in India are located in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

In these yards some parts that have resale value are stripped from the electronics items, mostly computers and stereos, and others like circuit boards, wires and chips are burnt for obtaining metals like solder, copper and gold.

According to Ramachandra, certain computer parts contain highly dangerous components like, toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics and plastic additives.

These items, when burnt not only endanger the lives of workers, mostly child labourers, who set fire and then extract the metals but also the residential areas falling in the vicinity.

Some metals like lead, mercury, barium and cadmium pose serious danger to the health and environment. Lead causes damage to nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system in humans.

Lead seeps into soil and can have long term effects on plants and animals. Mercury is another dangerous metal that can damage brain and kidneys. Children are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of mercury.

Exposure to barium could cause brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the heart, liver, and spleen. Cadmium compounds tend to accumulate in human organs like kidneys having long-term complications.

When the dangers are so obvious and the task of controlling the menace so daunting, where is the hindrance? "Policy makers are aware of the issue but lack in sincerity to implement the right measures" says Ramachandra.

"The industry and the government will not take it seriously unless the public and the media pressurise them", Agrawal says

When asked about the steps taken by local authorities in Delhi, Naini Jayaseelan, chairperson of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, says that they are waiting for a "formal notification of the rules on the issue from the central government" and that a survey of e-waste spreading areas within Delhi is yet to take place.

Any silver lining? "Recently the Karnataka Pollution Control Board issued notice to a software giant about e-waste management. Some signs of improvement!" says Ramachandra.

"There are some interesting projects like E-Parisara in Bangalore that aims to deal with e-waste scientifically. And we at Toxics Link are fighting forever and we have not lost hope" chips in Agrawal.