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Hazards issue 109, January-March 2010
 E-waste headache hurts workers in the UK and worldwide
Photo: Basel Action Network
Where do your gizmos go to die? The law says we should treat our e-waste responsibly, but that doesn’t stop it turning up in Africa, Asia and Latin America where “recycling” sometimes means kids working unprotected with deadly toxins. And, says Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, UK workers are being poisoned too.

Recycling poisons
Hazards issue 109, January-March 2010



At work and at home we are surrounded by can’t-live-without state-of-the-art electronic gizmos that a seemingly indispensible for a year or two – and that we then dispense with. These electronic must-haves provide a new type of not-so-durable consumer product complete with built-in obsolescence. The perpetual technological turnover underpins the cash turnover of e-companies everywhere.

Whether the resulting tsunami of e-crap stems from fashion – you just have to have that new i-phone, it’s soooooo cool – or from the inescapable upgrades, a product that started its e-life in a cleanroom, free of even a speck of dust, is destined to end its days presenting a serious toxic hangover.Photo: Bobby Shaftoe

This UK e-waste recycling giant recirculated mercury through the workplace via a defective ventilation system, resulting in gross exposures to the workforce. [More]

Each new gadget is e-waste in waiting, and the waste from this disposable technology is, perversely, shockingly durable. Some is dumped, but increasingly it is destined for the virtuous-sounding fate of “recycling”. Sometimes the recycling workers paying with their health, from India, to China, to Africa, have little choice but to undertake this work for a pittance. [1]

Sometimes, they have no choice at all, like the prisoners poisoned in the USA’s prison industrial complexes. The California-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says the problem extends from this use of prison labour on its own doorstep, to the developing world – it estimates up to 80 per cent of the USA’s e-waste, like that from other wealthy countries, is exported to “impoverished nations”.

The Basel Action Network, a group campaigning against toxic exports, says e-waste is the fastest growing part of the waste stream in the US. But of the e-waste that is collected by recyclers, 50 to 80 per cent of that is not actually recycled, but is exported to developing nations where it is handled in very crude and dangerous ways that expose workers and communities to toxic materials.

The situation appears similar in Europe. Despite legal controls on e-waste exports from the European Union, Out of control, [2] an April 2009 report from the makeITfair campaign, concluded at least 60 per cent of the EU’s e-waste is not properly accounted for. It suggested the waste “might be stored or disposed of otherwise within the EU however reports from developing countries show that parts of this ‘hidden flow’ are being exported for reuse, recycling or disposal in, for example, Asia and Africa.”

And it is a problem destined to worsen, as production – and disposal and recycling – of electronics products accelerates.  A recent study by consulting firm Deloitte estimated mobile phone waste is already growing by 9 per cent every year. According to the United Nations, 20-50 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced every year.

Photo: © Basel Action Network

SMASHING JOB  A Chinese worker smashes computer screens with a hammer to obtain valuable copper. As a result she will be exposed to lead and the highly toxic phosphor dust coating the inside of the screen.

It amounts to a major toxic headache. The international Electronics Takeback Coalition (ETBC) estimates over 1,000 materials, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, PVC, heavy metals, plastics and gases, are used to make electronic products and their components—semiconductor chips, circuit boards, and disk drives.

It adds that a computer screen can contain between four and eight pounds of lead alone. Big screen TVs contain even more than that. Flat panel TVs and monitors contain less lead, but use mercury lamps. About 40 per cent of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.

According to ETBC: “These toxicants are released during the production, use and disposal of electronic products, with the greatest impact at end-of-life. Harmful chemicals released from incinerators and leached from landfills contaminate air and groundwater. The burning of plastics at the waste stage releases dioxins and furans, known developmental and reproductive toxins which persist in the environment and concentrate up the food-chain.”

But e-waste recycling, the standard green solution, is a highly toxic process in its own right. And conditions in the industry are as distant from the cleanrooms where the products were created as the landfills – dumps –  they might otherwise occupy.  

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says the remedy to the e-waste headache is simple enough. “The ultimate solution to this e-waste crisis is to design cleaner products that are less toxic, easily recycled and allow for repairs and upgrades,” it says. “Electronics companies say that customer demand is the single most compelling driver for them to make changes in their products.” The campaign says to achieve that requires three steps by consumers: Make socially responsible purchases; recycle your electronics responsibly; and support laws to make companies responsible for their toxic trash.

Waste and recycling is a sick industry

Workers in the UK waste and recycling industry have much higher sickness rates than other local authority workers, research by a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) agency has found. [more]
But when it comes to new products – and there’s always another newer, more efficient, faster, greener, cooler product on the blocks – socially responsible purchasing is not an option made available, at least in good time. The product and the pursuit of profit that usually drives its development comes a long time ahead of any real consideration of that product’s lifecycle, particularly when companies are allowed to say “so long, sucker” once the cash has been prised from your grasp.

We should know better. Asbestos was a “miracle fibre.” It’s now the biggest industrial killer of all time. Computers came along with the toxic plastic casing crammed with toxic chemicals and toxic metals. Within a working generation it was clear the workers who produced them got sick, developed cancers, had reproductive problems. The disposal headache is the next piece of the life-to-death story of this very modern product replete with very old hazards.

And we continue to repeat the same old mistakes for the same old reasons. One study has already reported deaths in Chinese nanotechnology workers. It’s probably only a matter of time before the price of nanoproduction, like asbestos and surely like the developing electronics waste crisis, is measured in lives, not money.


Key organisations

Basel Action Network
e-Stewards website
Electronics TakeBack Coalition
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition



1. Hazards green jobs, safe jobs blog.
2. Out of control, makeITfair, April 2009.
3. Review of sickness absence data in the waste and recycling industry, HSE research report 750, 2009 [pdf].


Toxins were recycled in recycling firm air


One of the UK’s largest recycling firms and its director have been fined a total of £145,000 for “shocking” safety breaches that exposed workers to mercury fumes.

Twenty employees of Electrical Waste Recycling Group Ltd (EWR), formerly known as Matrix Direct Recycling Ltd, had levels of mercury in their system above UK guidance levels at the site in Huddersfield, and five of them showed extremely high levels following the exposure in the 10 months between October 2007 and August 2008. Several workers had reported ill health as a result, including a pregnant worker who was concerned her unborn baby was at risk.

The firm recycles electrical equipment including fluorescent light tubes containing mercury and TV sets and monitors containing lead. Bradford Crown Court heard that ventilation problems at the plant meant employees were being exposed to potentially harmful emissions from both substances. Mercury vapour was released when the lighting tubes were crushed. Because carbon filters were not fitted on the purpose-designed machine, the contaminated air was itself recycled and pumped back into the premises. One of the ducts pumped contaminated air directly into the office area.

The firm is involved in litigation with the American suppliers of the processing equipment over the missing carbon filters which would have stopped any mercury emissions, the court was told.

On 5 February 2010, EWR was fined £140,000 and ordered to pay £35,127 costs after pleading guilty to criminal safety breaches, including three separate breaches of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, and one breach of the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002. 

Company director Craig Thompson, 38, was also fined £5,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. The judge decided not to disqualify Thompson from being a director. The court was told he had financial difficulties, including debts of £80,000.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK government’s workplace safety enforcement agency, issued the company five Improvement Notices and one Prohibition Notice – putting an immediate stop to work -  in relation to the incident. Although the company’s own daily tests identified high levels of mercury at the premises, the closure of an oven used to dispose of the chemical failed to solve the problem and by August 2008 HSE had issued the prohibition and improvement notices against the company.

Prior to the prohibition notice, HSE staff had tested the urine of 35 employees at the premises and found 20 had higher than recommended levels of mercury. Barrister Robert Smith QC, for the companies, said since the prohibition notice was served the firm had spent £350,000 installing an effective emission filter system and a further £281,000-a-year was being spent on additional managers and supervisors. He told the court tests on staff conducted in January 2010 showed all were under the recommended levels.

After the hearing HSE inspector Jeanne Morton said: “This is a shocking case involving a large number of employees, many of them young and vulnerable, who were suddenly faced with the worrying possibility of damage to their long-term health. The risks associated with handling toxic substances like mercury have been known for generations, so it is all the more unacceptable that something like this has happened. The company failed to see the risks created by their recycling work and failed to develop effective plans for safe working. They also did nothing to check their workers’ health after exposure.

“Workers have a right to expect a reasonable level of protection in the workplace, and employers have a legal duty to provide it.”

Max Folkett, site inspector for the Environment Agency, added: “We have worked closely with HSE and other organisations during the investigation which led to this prosecution. Electrical Waste Recycling Group Limited requires an environmental permit from us for the recovery and processing of hazardous waste and we routinely inspect the site to check the company is complying with the permit. We suspended the permit following this incident in August 2008, removing the risk of mercury escaping from the site, because of our concerns the operation posed a serious risk of pollution from mercury.”

Toxic metals use, far from declining, appears to be staging a comeback. Lead use has increased dramatically in recent years. And increased production of electronic equipment worldwide is set to see the use of lead soar over the next decade.

The long term downward trend in mercury production stalled in 2006 and 2007. Latest figures, published in the 2009 edition of the authoritative World Mineral Production, show 1.4 million kilograms were produced in each of these years, a figure the report suggests is an underestimate.



Waste and recycling is a sick industry

Workers in the UK waste and recycling industry have much higher sickness rates than other local authority workers, research by a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) agency has found. The 2009 report from The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) found the sector recorded more days off work than other departments within local government but also found record keeping was inconsistent and inadequate, so data “failed to accurately capture the reasons for absence”. [3]

The report revealed local authority employees in the waste industry had an average of 12.8 days’ absence. In contrast, the Local Government Employers (LGE) absence survey, published in 2007, reported an average of 9.6 days’ absence for wider local authority workers. HSL statistician Dr Eileen Holmes, the author of the report, commented: “The research revealed some interesting findings and indicated there are higher rates of absenteeism in local authority waste workers than in the wider public sector.”

She said, however, variations in the quality of data collected by local authorities “meant it has not been possible to identify the most common reason for someone taking time off work and, it follows, to recommend measures to highlight and address those underlying causes.” The study looked at data compiled in 2007 and 2008 from 16 local authorities and two private companies. “The current system makes it near impossible to determine the most frequently occurring absences or to properly compare like for like,” Dr Holmes added, calling for standardised criteria for recording this information.





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