E-wastes: A Threat to Human Life

The seemingly exponential acceleration of technological improvements present a fair share of cravings – cravings that extend beyond one’s feelings of inadequacy that cannot be quelled until one gets one’s hands on the next big thing. In today’s consumer capitalist world, the value of things once bought is lost over a period of time and hence, discarded for new ones to stand up against the upbeat of this horriplating technological race. However, this poses a serious environmental concern of accumulating e-wastes. Every time someone makes a device run faster, smoother or more efficiently, a whole line of products are bunched up- surplus and obsolete.


Ever-changing rapid technological change, low initial cost, improvements over the currently existing availabilities, launching of newer and better commodities and planned obsolescence are some of the reasons that have contributed to the fast growing surplus of electronic wastes around the globe. Of this, planned obsolescence, aimed at deliberately improving rate volumes, is the worst. In addition to increasing e-wastes, this phenomenon has also led to development of poor quality items and has actually made people pay a higher price than they would normally agree to pay, by means of replacement. Reasons for other factors leading to e-wastes are large scale smuggling across international boundaries, country rivalries, development of second degree goods by manufacturing top shots, fierce competition, creeping featurism which expands functionality in newer product versions etc.


The main issue of concern is that e-wastes are abodes of harmful chemicals and toxins which hoard a serious threat to human life and the environment. E-wastes have many toxic substances built into it. Some of these actually make the device safe when they operate, but the disposal difficult. Cathode-ray-tube televisions and computer monitors, last-century standbys of home and office, have enormous amounts of lead built into the glass to stop stray radiation from escaping. If these old TVs and PCs are improperly discarded at the dump, they can shatter and release dangerous amounts of lead into the ground and eventually into the water table. Lead damages the nervous system, blood system, kidneys and the reproductive system. Semiconductors in computer chips and modern circuitry also contain many poisons like gallium arsenide, cadmium and beryllium. These cause serious damage to the brain and nervous system. In addition to this, there are other wastes like cobalt which is a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), arsenic which is a slow poison and gradually kills a person over a period of prolonged exposure, mercury which also is toxic for the body, organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the common flame retardants. These poisons, when dumped, do not biodegrade easily and tend to accumulate in land fills where they are discarded. There is also a tendency for these to leach into the soil and get mixed with groundwater. The problem is further worsened by biological magnification.


Moreover, there is a pervading low public awareness about the hazardous nature of e-waste and the use of low-end or crude waste management techniques. Also, there is a fast growing volume of e-waste imports in developing countries whether in the form of post-consumer goods or end-of-life equipment. In these countries, there is no appropriate method or way to prevent, minimize, re-use, recycle or recover materials from e-wastes and to dispose off the residue arising from these operations in an environmentally sound manner.


Current methods of e-waste disposal are restricted mainly to open burning of plastic wastes, exposure to solders and river dumping of acids. At this rate, e-wastes continue to be a serious threat especially since no country possesses the skills, capacity, infrastructure and stringent laws to reuse, recycle or recover the immense variety of recyclable materials. It’s high time people are made aware about such forms of pollution and threats posed by them to be careful while buying such products as well as during future disposal of unwanted electronic items.

Meren Mathews

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