New Scientist
April 4, 2008

Think about this next time you upgrade your PC: toxic metals from old electronic goods are finding their way into school grounds in China.

Seventy per cent of the world’s discarded phones and computers are exported to China. Most are processed in family-run workshops, where the circuit boards are ripped out of old equipment and heated over open fires. This melts the solder, allowing individual components to be removed and resold. The bare circuit boards are then burned.

But as Ming Wong of Hong Kong Baptist University points out, circuit boards contain a lot of heavy metals. Burning them releases fumes containing metals such as lead and copper, which pose a danger to people’s health. Lead damages the central nervous system and lungs if inhaled, for example.

Wong analysed dust at locations around Guiyu, a Chinese village heavily involved in e-waste recycling. He found that dust from roads next to e-waste workshops had 370 times more lead than samples from roads 30 kilometres away (Environmental Science and Technology, DOI: 10.1021/es071873x). He also found that the lead levels in Guiyu’s school grounds were up to six times the accepted limit for Canadian schools.

"Hopefully studies like this will lead to the European Union placing circuit boards firmly on the hazardous waste list," says Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a toxic waste watchdog based in Seattle, Washington.

Wong had previously found elevated levels of toxic organic chemicals in the breast milk of women living near e-waste sites in China.

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