U.S. Electronic Waste Gets Sent to Africa

Electronic junk from America finds its way to Africa, puts children at risk.

July 30, 2009, 6:26 PM

ACCRA, Ghana, Aug. 2, 2009— -- It's the wet season now in Ghana, and the heavy, daily rains have turned the vast field behind the Agbogbloshie market into a muddy swamp.

With the mud so thick it can pull the shoes from your feet -- if you're lucky enough to have shoes -- the children come here to rummage and rake the mountains of electronic debris that spills across the landscape.

They are scavenging for copper wiring that they can sell. On a very good day, they can extract about $2 of copper from the broken computers, telephone answering machines and televisions that have been discarded.

Much of the e-waste in the Agbogbloshie dump comes from foreign countries, including the United States. Recyclers that buy it from government agencies ship it overseas in cargo containers mixed in with second-hand electronics. The buyer in the foreign country keeps what is salable and carts of what isn't to e-waste sites such as Agbogbloshie.

Some of the children are aware that breaking open junked electronics exposes them to potentially harmful chemicals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Many don't know. No one is deterred.

Yusef Nashedu, 12, has been mining the field for copper for the past three years. He goes to school weekdays and comes here after school. On weekends, he spends all day in the dumpsite.

"Sometimes, I feel sick," Yusef said. "In my body, I can't feel free."

Dressed in short pants, a dirty polo shirt and plastic yellow flip-flops, Yusef shuffles through the jagged debris, stooped over, looking for copper wires.

Some of the children built fires on which they toss large hunks of discarded electronics. The fire melts the plastic, revealing the copper wires inside. The fire also releases toxic fumes.

"We are looking at immense health implications," said Mike Anane, a local environmental activist who frequently visits the Agbogbloshie field to warn the children and adults of the dangers of what they are doing.

"For the kids, we're talking about lowering the IQ as a result of the lead, of the mercury, even the cadmium. It affects the nervous system. These are kids. Their bodies are very vulnerable," Anane said.

It is difficult to trace where the e-waste comes from. Most of it has been shattered or broken into pieces that bear no identifying markings. But among the scattered junk are a few items with labels.

Anane held up computer pieces with decals for the Washington Metro Transit Authority, U.S. Army, State of Connecticut Mental Heath Facility, and other U.S. city, state and federal agencies. According to environmental group Greenpeace, even computers with the label of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were found at the dump.

Under the 1998 Basel Convention, it is illegal for someone in a signatory country to send hazardous materials to another country without that recipient country's permission. But the United States, Afghanistan and Haiti never ratified the convention, so it is not unlawful in those countries.

In the case of the United States, which has stringent laws governing the disposal of e-waste, it is cheaper for recyclers to just ship the junked electronics to a country like Ghana than to properly dispose of it. And with few exceptions, it is legal.

"This is a pure cost situation," said Casey Harrell of Greenpeace's San Francisco office. "There are no nefarious masterminds here that are trying to ruin the lives of people overseas. The reality is you can send these container ships for pennies."

A federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in August 2008 found that "potentially harmful used electronics ... [are] virtually unrestricted" to foreign countries.

The United States does ban the export of television and computer screens containing Cathode Ray Tubes, or CRTs, which contain lead. But the GAO report, titled EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Legislation," concluded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was lax even in monitoring the export of CRTs.

"EPA has done little to determine the extent of non-compliance with the rule and even less to deter such non-compliance," the report stated.

"It's a very damning report," Harrell said. "Basically, it said that the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal government was doing little to nothing on the regulation of e-waste."

At the time of the report, the EPA was under the Bush administration.

In an e-mail reply to questions from ABC News, the EPA -- now overseen byt the Obama administration -- said: "Over the last year, EPA has stepped up enforcement of the CRT rule as it regards export. Last year, EPA began more than 20 investigations into possible violations of the CRT export requirements."

John Stephenson, GAO director for Natural Resources and Environment -- and a harsh critic of the EPA last year -- concurred.

"It appears that they are more aggressively investigating and enforcing the CRT rule," Stephenson said. "I know there has been enforcement activity against recyclers, and that's more than they were doing before."

When asked if the EPA is doing a better job now than the previous EPA, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardou Materials, said, "No."

In any case, American e-waste containing CRTs is a fraction of the e-waste that is allowed to be exported.

The GAO report and Mike Anane in Ghana both warn of a coming wave of e-waste -- Anane calls it a "tsunami" -- in the form of old televisions as a consequence of the change in the U.S. from analog to digital television.

"The prospect looms that many more used electronic devices will be discarded in the near future," the GAO said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events