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."