How Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa's Kids

Chemicals in discarded computers from the west are poisoning African children.

ByABC News
December 7, 2009, 5:34 AM

Dec. 7, 2009 — -- According to the Bible, God rained down fire and brimstone to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. "Sodom and Gomorrah" is also what officials in Accra, Ghana, have come to call a part of their city plagued by toxins of a sort the residents of the Biblical cities couldn't even have imagined. No one sets foot in this place unless they absolutely have to.

Acrid, black smoke drifts over the huts of the slum. The river, too, is black and thick like used oil, as it carries empty computer cases toward the ocean. Fires are blazing on the bank across the way, fueled by foam and slivers of plastic. Their flames consume the plastic material from cables, plugs and motherboards, leaving behind only metal.

There's a wind today, blowing the smoke from these infernal fires low across the ground. Breathing in too deeply is painful to the lungs, and the people tending the fires are sometimes nothing more than vague, foggy silhouettes.

One small, stooped figure makes his way between the fires. With one hand, the boy drags an old speaker through the ashes and dirt, pulling it along behind him on a cord. His other hand clutches a bag.

The speaker and the bag are all that belong to this boy, who bears the unusual first name of Bismarck, aside from the T-shirt and pants he's wearing. Fourteen-years-old but small for his age, Bismarck scours the ground for anything the older boys might have left behind after burning a batch of computers. It might be bits of copper cable, the motor from a hard drive, or leftover pieces of aluminum. The magnets in his speaker also pick up screws or steel plugs.

Bismarck drops everything he finds into his bag. Once the bag is half full, he can sell the metal and buy some rice, maybe a tomato too, or even a chicken drumstick grilled over a refurbished car wheel rim. But today, the boy says, he still hasn't found enough, and he disappears again into the smoke.

This area next to Sodom and Gomorrah is the final destination for old computers and other discarded electronics from around the world. There are many places like this, not just in Ghana, but also in countries like Nigeria, Vietnam, India, China and the Philippines. Bismarck is just one of perhaps a hundred children here, and one of thousands around the world.

These children live amid the refuse of the Internet age, and many of them may die of it. They pull apart the computers, breaking the screens with rocks, then throw the internal electronics onto the fires. Computers contain large amounts of heavy metals, and as the plastic burns, the children also breathe in highly carcinogenic fumes. The computers of the rich are poisoning the children of the poor.

The United Nations estimates that up to 50 million tons of electronic waste are thrown away globally each year. It costs about €3.50 ($5.30) to properly dispose of an old CRT monitor in Germany. But it costs only €1.50 to stick it on a container ship to Ghana.

An international treaty, the Basel Convention, came into effect in 1989. The treaty is sound in its concept, forbidding developed countries from carrying out unauthorized dumping of computer waste in less developed countries. A total of 172 countries have signed the convention, but three of them never ratified it: Haiti, Afghanistan, and the United States. According to estimates by the US Environmental Protection Agency, around 40 million computers are discarded each year in the US alone.

European Union directives with acronyms like WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) followed the Basel Convention, and individual countries have signed them into law. Germany's waste disposal laws are among the world's strictest, and shipping computer waste to Ghana can lead to a prison sentence. In theory.

The German government recently set out to examine how things look in practice. Experts at the German Federal Environment Agency are still completing a paper that will be published in the coming weeks, but the upshot is already clear -- there are serious holes in the country's recycling system. According to the study, export firms in Germany ship 100,000 tons of discarded electrical appliances south each year, far more than experts had feared.

"This is a business worth millions, not something that falls under petty crime," says Knut Sander at the Hamburg-based environmental institute Ökopol. He authored the study, which took him months to research. His investigations landed him warnings that he should watch out for his own safety.

He didn't have to go far from his office to observe the export industry at work. "The Port of Hamburg is important," he explains. "What doesn't leave through Hamburg leaves through Antwerp or Rotterdam."

Entering Hell

Sander traced the small-time dealers who ship a container here and there or a couple of junk cars packed with computers. Sometimes they park by the hundreds at Hamburg's O'Swaldkai terminal, where ships depart forAfrica. There are large enterprises sending toxic cargo as well -- so-called remarketing companies, which collect hundreds of thousands of old appliances a year. These companies are allowed to resell working computers, but required to recycle defective ones. And some of them know very well just how much money they stand to save in Ghana.

The task of stopping this waste export is supposed to fall to a few customs officers and harbor police. But when agents do occasionally open a container, they're more than likely asking for trouble in court. The laws don't define what a scrap computer is, and it's legal to export used computers, just not scrapped ones. A computer that's broken but possibly still fixable -- does that count as scrap? What about one that's 20 years old and can hardly run a single program? When in doubt, judges rule in favor of the exporters.

All Bismarck knows is that the computers all stink, whether they're 10- or 20-years-old and whether they're made by Dell, Apple, IBM or Siemens. When they burn, it makes his head and throat hurt. The gray, gummy ashes settle into every pore and wrinkle, and they itch. Spots appear on his skin, but he knows he can't scratch them because the dust would sting in the open wounds.

From the outset, Bismarck knew he was entering hell. But back then he was a 10-year-old boy, and he imagined hell could also somehow mean adventure. In any case, he didn't have a choice any more than the other children here in Sodom. Most of them came to Accra, the capital, from Ghana's even poorer regions further north.

Bismarck can still remember his village. It's near Techiman, roughly in the middle of the country. There was no electricity there, and the hut walls were made of mud.

His father disappeared when Bismarck was young, so he never got to ask why his dad gave him such a strange name, one nobody in the village had heard before. Bismarck's mother raised him alone, until she was struck by a car. She lost both her legs and died shortly afterward.

An aunt took Bismarck in, but there was rarely enough to eat. Eventually, an older boy in the village told him about Accra, and about a place there between the Agbogbloshie market and the slum called Sodom, where even a 10-year-old could earn enough money to be able to eat. The 16-year-old also told him about the computers and the smoke, and that he would have to be strong.

The two boys left their village not long thereafter, traveling by bus and then train. The older boy had money for the fares since he had already been to work in Sodom.

Bismarck learned the rules quickly. There's a hierarchy, and each boy can try to work his way up. The young men, those around 25-years-old, control the big junk scales that often stand where tracks can be seen in the ash covering the ground. They buy the metal the children find in the computers and sell it to a foundry near the harbor. When Bismarck's bag reaches half full after a day around the fires, he can sell his finds to these men for about two Ghanaian cedi, equivalent to around €1 or $1.5.

Those who are a bit younger, around 18-years-old, have handcarts made from boards and old car axles. They head into the city in the early morning to collect computers from the scrap importers and bring them back to the slum. They smash the computers and pull out the cables, then either throw the rest onto the fires themselves or sell it to the slightly younger boys.

It's mainly these boys who carry the bundles of cables and plastic to the fires to be burned. One of them is Kwami Ama, who is 16 and one of Bismarck's two friends here. Kwami has a strong body and a round, honest face. Only his eyes, bright red from the fumes by the time evening rolls around, make him appear wild. Scars crisscrossing his hands attest to the jagged edges of broken computers and old refrigerators. Kwami rips foam insulation out of the refrigerators to use as kindling before tossing computer parts onto the flames. The foam burns violet and green, hot enough to melt down even cables with fire retardant chemicals in their plastic insulation.

Kwami can no longer talk about things the way Bismarck does. "I'm often sad," he says, although he's doing well by the standards of Sodom. Tending the fires is the most toxic work of all, but he earns enough money to afford a place to sleep in a wooden hut in Sodom. The shanty is about two meters (six and half feet) wide and three meters (10 feet) long. Three boys sleep here, sharing the wooden floor. There are no windows in the hut, but the door has a padlock, allowing them to sleep in safety -- a luxury in Sodom.

The Poor against the Poor

Unlike his friend, Bismarck is afraid of the night. He rolls himself up in the dark like a dog and sleeps against a wooden wall in Sodom, or in the ashes by a broken freezer in the open area where the appliances are, or by one of the scales. He changes his sleeping spot regularly. He has two friends here, no more. In hell, the poor are pitted against the poor.

A few days ago, he had a stroke of luck when he found a large amount of copper, and the man at the scale paid him seven cedi. Bismarck only spent two of them, but the next morning, the other five were gone. Someone had used a razor blade to slice open his pocket while he was sleeping. He simply earns too little -- he can afford to eat or to rent a spot in a hut, but not both.

Bismarck can't spend the night with his other friend either. Danjuma is 11-years-old and believes he's been working here for several years already. His parents are still living, but four more siblings share their hut in Sodom, and there's no room there for Bismarck.

Danjuma's mother hates to see him working at the fires and wishes he were in school. But the family needs the money. Danjuma is the oldest, and it's not clear how much longer he'll be able to work effectively. He often suffers pains in his chest and back.

Danjuma and Bismarck belong to the youngest group, the children between 8 and 14. They're not allowed to tend the fires, and neither are girls. The young boys work with magnets, while the girls bring the older boys drinking water in plastic bags and sometimes food. "You have to drink a lot," Kwami explains. The sun beats down from above, bringing the temperature to more than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. And there is no shade in Agbogbloshie. Nearby, plastic is burning at a temperature of over 300 degrees Celsius (570 degrees Fahrenheit).

He's forgotten a lot of things, Kwami says, but he remembers one day last year very clearly. A group of white people came to the junkyard area, a rare event. They were from Greenpeace. One man wore gloves and carried small test tubes. He took samples of mud from one of the river's lagoons, then ash and soil from several different places in the area.

The chemist ran tests on his samples back home in England, and the values he arrived at weren't good. He found high concentrations of lead, cadmium and arsenic, as well as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls.

Lead, to take just one of the dangerous chemicals, causes headaches and stomach cramps after brief exposure. In the long term, it damages the nervous system, the kidneys, the blood and especially the brain. When children ingest lead through water or breathe it in, their brains shrink slightly and their intelligence decreases. Scientists in Germany grow concerned when they find values exceeding a limit of 0.5 milligrams of lead dust per cubic meter of air. The cathode ray tubes in a single computer monitor contain about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of lead. Many of the other substances the chemist found can also cause cancer, among other things.

Mike Anane, an environmental activist and local coordinator for the international human rights organization FIAN, brought in the people from Greenpeace. Anane was born here 46 years ago, right around where Agbogbloshie now lies. In those days, there was nothing along the banks but green meadows and flamingos, and fishermen made their living from the river. Now nothing can live in the water.

Eight years ago, Anane began to notice more and more trucks driving toward Agbogbloshie, their beds full of computers. He took a closer look and started fighting back against what he saw. Anane collects stickers from many of the junk computers to find out whose toxins are burning here. He has labels from the US Department of Defense, British authorities and companies like Barclays Bank and British Telecom. "Some of the kids here will never see their 25th birthday," Anane believes.

He knows, though, that the companies and organizations whose labels arrive here together with their discarded appliances aren't the ones actually bringing this refuse into the country. The people directly involved are traders like Michael Ninicyi, head of Kofi Enterprise.

Kofi Enterprise is a small store filled to bursting with computers. The best goods are old Pentium machines that go for $90, DVD drive included. Printers and copiers are displayed under a yellow awning out front -- all machines from Germany, Ninicyi says. A copy of the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, used for padding, sits wedged between two of the computers. Some of the cases still bear labels from companies based in, for example, the small German town of Kleve, the state of Brandenburg or the Rhineland. All these goods are functional and legal.

'This Business Is Good for Ghana'

Ninicyi wears creased dress pants, a gold necklace and fancy shoes. He's a man who has made it. His English is excellent, he speaks well and can defend himself well -- although he doesn't feel he needs to do so. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Ninicyi purchases his wares exclusively from container ships out of Hamburg. "Germans simply take better care of their appliances than anyone else," he explains. He doesn't want to say exactly who the sellers are. He buys the products blind, which is typical in this industry. As part of their cost calculation, the German vendors make sure that each container contains some working appliances, as well as some that could still be repaired. The rest, about 30 percent, is junk, which Ninicyi immediately passes on to the boys who come from Agbogbloshie with their handcarts. Containers from Britain have a much higher proportion of junk.

"This business is good for Ghana and for the other countries," Ninicyi says. He feels bad about the children, but he pays taxes, his customers pay taxes and people in Ghana get computers they can afford.

He is even familiar with a larger theory that would recast him as something akin to a development aid worker. The theory of the "digital divide," originally developed at the University of Minnesota, states simply that because poor people can't afford modern means of communication, and because it is knowledge that creates prosperity, poorer people will continue to fall behind and the divide will grow ever wider. Providing them with computers helps close the gap.

The theory has some weak points. First of all, it was developed in 1970, three years before a young student named Bill Gates even began studying at Harvard. There is also a second theory of the computer age, Moore's Law, named for one of Intel's co-founders, which effectively states that computer processing power doubles every two years. Software developers follow suit, making today's newest computers already out of date tomorrow and ready to be sent off to Sodom by the day after.

"It's all moving faster and faster, and we're getting steamrolled," says John Pwamang, director of the Chemicals Control and Management Center at Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency. The agency is located in a crumbling concrete building. On the way to Pwamang's office, visitors must first climb a stairway that must at one point have been green, then pass a defective bathroom and a conference room with brown drapes reduced to tatters. Three waste bins stand in the hall -- a brown one for paper, a gray one for plastic, and another brown one for everything else. The country, however, doesn't have a working recycling system. It looks as though Pwamang's agency still has a few problems ahead of it.

Pwamang's eyes are hardly visible behind his thick bifocals. He speaks softly, which also helps him appear milder than he actually is. "You Europeans dig your feet into the ground," he says. "What are we supposed to do with the toxins you send us? We can't dispose of them. You have the facilities. Working computers are fine, but many of the very old ones don't even last a year here. Why don't you halt the flow of junk?"

Pwamang can't prove that the lead and dioxin are killing the children. Hardly anyone over 25 works at the fires by the black river. And there are no studies on the issue. Greenpeace has admittedly identified and quantified the toxins, but didn't examine their direct effects. "The children are sick," Pwamang says. "There are heavy metals there, there are toxins. A study would be good, but I know that even without a study that it's disastrous."

And yet, despite it all, the kids in Sodom sometimes seem to have fun. The older boys play football every evening in an open space between the fires, a couple of joists forming the goals and emptied out computer monitors marking the corners of the field. The players sprint and dive through the fumes from the fires. They're not just playing for fun, but also for their futures, as many Ghanaians have left to play for professional leagues in the West. It's a crazy dream, but for many of the young people here, a dream is the only thing that allows them to escape now and then.

Bismarck's friend Danjuma has the same dream, of course. He'd love to train for the sport, despite the pains in his chest, but he doesn't have the money for a ball. Perhaps that's for the best, though. In order to run, he would have to breathe deeply.