New WHO report highlights health effects from the improper disposal of e-waste
The increasing prevalence of improperly or illegally disposed of waste electrical and electronic equipment leads to health and developmental problems in children, especially in developing countries. This is the conclusion reached in the WHO report "Children and digital dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child health", co-financed by the German Federal Environment Ministry. The findings underscore the urgent need for a globally coordinated approach to the safe and sustainable management of chemicals. At the invitation of German Environment Minister Schulze, ministers and high-ranking representatives of international organisations, industry, science and civil society from 33 countries will discuss how human health and the environment can be better protected from hazardous chemicals and waste at the Berlin Forum on Chemicals and Sustainability: Ambition and Action towards 2030.
The Berlin Forum will be held today (from 1 pm) and tomorrow in a virtual format. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will kick off the conference with speeches. The Berlin Forum aims to raise the profile of the responsible use of chemicals and waste among policymakers. To coincide with the Berlin Forum, Germany is donating one million euros to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to support developing countries in building structures for greater chemical safety.
German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze commented: "We must ensure that chemicals are produced and used in ways that do not pose risks to human health and the environment. As production and trade become increasingly globalised, we cannot achieve this on our own at national or regional level. Chemicals know no borders. This is why it is important that we also tackle this challenge at international level and work together to find solutions that span the entire life cycle of chemicals and the products made from them – from cradle to grave. The consistent introduction of internationally recognised labelling for hazardous substances by all countries would be a first step in the right direction."
Maria Neira, Director at WHO, remarked: "Children and adolescents have the right to grow and learn in a healthy environment, and exposure to electrical and electronic waste and its many toxic components unquestionably impacts that right. The health sector can play a role by providing leadership and advocacy, conducting research, influencing policy-makers, engaging communities, and reaching out to other sectors to demand that health concerns be made central to e-waste policies. This is why it is important that the United Nations’ activities for more chemical safety and sustainable chemicals management gain much more momentum from the international community. The Berlin Forum offers an excellent opportunity to do this."
Children exposed to e-waste are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals it contains due to their smaller size, less developed organs and rapid rate of growth. They are particularly sensitive to pollutants in their stage of development and are less able to metabolise or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies. This can negatively affect children's respiratory tracts and breathing, impair thyroid function and damage their DNA.
For many years, Germany has been working around the world to ensure that e-waste is disposed of safely. Most e-waste remains in developing countries. This is why Germany has also been committed to combating illegal exports of electronic and electrical waste. Important steps have been taken with the introduction of stricter regulations in the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which was transposed in Germany in the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (Elektro- und Elektronikgerätegesetz), as well as in the European Waste Shipment Regulation. In addition, Germany has further developed e-waste recycling regulations for disposal companies to prevent the spread of pollutants. For example, a recently adopted regulation on waste treatment specifies which components that contain pollutants must be removed and at which stage of the treatment process. Elements such as batteries or refrigerants must now be removed before mechanical crushing operations. At the same time, more collection points for waste electrical and electronic equipment will be established close to consumers. For example, from 2022, retailers with a sales floor of 800 m² or more are required to accept the return of smaller used electrical appliances, regardless of whether a new product is purchased. Larger waste appliances such as washing machines or dishwashers can be returned free of charge when a new item is purchased. Improving collection channels close to the consumer can further contribute to curbing illegal exports of e-waste. These regulations must be rigorously implemented and, where necessary, further developed.
To ensure that chemicals are handled safely worldwide, the international community created the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) under the auspices of the United Nations. This framework is currently being renegotiated. The negotiations aim to create capacities for chemical safety everywhere in the world so that particularly urgent issues can be addressed. The Fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) will conclude this negotiation process under Germany’s Presidency and set the course for the future of international chemicals management. Through the Berlin Forum, the German Environment Ministry aims to contribute to an ambitious outcome to the ICCM5 negotiations.
Yesterday, the winners of the Future Policy Award 2021 showcased solutions to protect people and the environment from hazardous chemicals worldwide. This year's prize honours exemplary legislation that protects human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals. One of the six award-winning countries is Colombia. The country received the special prize in the category "Environmentally Persistent Pharmaceutical Pollutants" because it created the first successful mandatory medicine disposal scheme in Latin America with Resolution No. 371. The winning policies highlight how legislation on the protection of humans and the environment can be successful even in difficult circumstances.