Where do old cellphones go to die?

Leyla Acaroglu writes: Americans replace their cellphones every 22 months, junking some 150 million old phones in 2010 alone. Ever wondered what happens to all these old phones? The answer isn’t pretty.

In far-flung, mostly impoverished places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Delhi, India; and Guiyu, China, children pile e-waste into giant mountains and burn it so they can extract the metals — copper wires, gold and silver threads — inside, which they sell to recycling merchants for only a few dollars. In India, young boys smash computer batteries with mallets to recover cadmium, toxic flecks of which cover their hands and feet as they work. Women spend their days bent over baths of hot lead, “cooking” circuit boards so they can remove slivers of gold inside. Greenpeace, the Basel Action Network and others have posted YouTube videos of young children inhaling the smoke that rises from burned phone casings as they identify and separate different kinds of plastics for recyclers. It is hard to imagine that good health is a by-product of their unregulated industry.

Indeed, most scientists agree that exposure poses serious health risks, especially to pregnant women and children. The World Health Organization reports that even a low level of exposure to lead, cadmium and mercury (all of which can be found in old phones) can cause irreversible neurological damage and threaten the development of a child.

The growing toxic nightmare that is e-waste is not confined to third world outposts. It also poses health problems in the United States where, for several years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has kept inmates busy processing e-waste. There are concrete steps the government, manufacturers and consumers could take to better dispose of electronic trash and to help prevent the pileup of more e-waste and the hazards e-waste processing poses.

The United States, for example, remains the only industrialized country that has not ratified the Basel Convention, an international treaty that makes it illegal to export or traffic in toxic e-waste. Fully implementing the treaty would be a step toward joining global efforts to contain toxic waste troubles. [Continue reading…]

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