Ghana’s toxic e-waste: How discarded mobile phones add to the health threats


A report published by the United Nations in 2019 estimated that about 50 million tonnes of electronic waste are being thrown away each year, with this figure projected to double by 2050.

Interestingly, only 20% of e-waste is said to be recycled appropriately. A huge chunk of the rest end up in landfills or are disposed of informally, inappropriately.

The use of mobile phones has become very integral to people’s daily lives and transactions in Ghana.

Unfortunately, these devices do not last forever as they come with lifespans. While some discard their old phones into garbage bins, others sell them to scrap dealers who burn them to extract valuable metals.

Concerns have been raised, and questions are being asked about the means of disposal of mobile phones when they outlive their usefulness.

“I throw my phone away [when it becomes obsolete]. I have a small box in my house where I place such phones,” a user told me.

Another said, “when I cannot repair the phone at all, I just put it down for the scrap delaers to coe for it. We also dispose it into the garbage bins.”

I then engaged some phone repairers who revealed that they sell non-reparable phones to scrap dealers at cheaper prices.

In Accra, Agbogbloshie is known to be the centre for the scrap business – the purchase of electronic waste from mobile phones is a thriving business there.

The scrap dealers, after buying damaged phones from their owners, gather them and begin sorting.

They burn the insulation of the wires from mobile phones and the other gadgets to extract the metals – including copper, lead, gold and silver threads – which they sell to recycling merchants.

When you speak to some of the scrap dealers, they say there are more than 1,000 chemicals in the e-waste streams categorised as ‘metals of concern’.

They include mercury, lead, cadmium, antimony, beryllium and others.

Minerals like gold, silver, iron and others are also found in e-waste – and these are found in components such as used batteries, switches, motherboards and cables.

The burning process to extract the metals for sale releases thick plumes of smoke containing toxic substances into the atmosphere, with dire health consequences on residents.

“We buy ‘condemned’ mobile phones and remove the covers and give some parts to the Igbo people – they also remove the motherboards and throw the empty covers away.”

“There is copper in the wires. In order to get the copper, we burn the wires to remove the insulation. That’s the only means to get what we want – the metals,” a scrap dealer, Ibrahim, explained.

Largely, over 90% of the processes of managing electronic waste in Agbogbloshie is done informally – and this releases pollutants to contaminate air, soil and even the groundwater.

Government earlier reclaimed the area in an attempt to check the scrap business to mitigate the negative impacts of their work on the environment.

Despite some of these interventions, the improper disposal and burning of e-waste is still prevalent in Agbogbloshie.

A recent report by environmental groups Ipen and the Basel Action Network found that Agbogbloshie contained some of the most hazardous chemicals on earth.

One egg hatched by a free-range chicken in Agbogbloshie exceeded European Food Safety Authority limits on chlorinated dioxins, which can cause cancer and damage to the immune system, 220 times over.

Scrap dealer Ibrahim admits to the negative health impacts of their work but he is quick to add that it is the only means to get what they want from the e-waste.

“Without burning the wires from the phones, we can’t do our work. We have not been provided with machines to extract the metals and even recycle them. Doctors have told us the smoke can affect our health but that’s our only option,” he added.

Common health issues among the workers are burns, back problems, and infected wounds. Respiratory problems, chronic nausea and debilitating headaches also exist for these persons.

In the absence of a regulation to check this industry, consumers and players would continue to determine what happens to products that have outlived their usefulness.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is implementing a global environmental facility project to develop value chain for the e-waste sector including collection to recycling.

According to the Deputy Director of the E-waste unit, Larry Kotoe, the $37.89 million grant has been secured through the World Bank for Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Senegal to – among other things – take steps to address the e-waste challenge.

This project is also expected to help improve the collection, transportation and safe disposal/recycling of e-waste.

Now is the time for the country to figure out a cleaner safer way to dispose of all this electronic junk.

By Christian Yalley|TV3 ||Ghana


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