The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said more than 18 million children and adolescents globally are being exposed to toxic e-waste.

The global organisation, which noted that some of the affected children are as young as 5 years, gave the statistics on Tuesday during the launch of its first report on e-waste and child health.

The report, which is titled; “Children and Digital Dumpsites,” noted that the affected children are actively engaged in the informal industrial sector, one of which waste processing is a sub-sector.

The health agency said 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which it noted potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk.

It noted that children are often engaged by parents or caregivers in e-waste recycling because their small hands are more dexterous than those of adults.

WHO also said; “Other children live, go to school and play near e-waste recycling centres where high levels of toxic chemicals, mostly lead and mercury, can damage their intellectual abilities

“Children exposed to e-waste are particularly vulnerable to the toxic chemicals they contain due to their smaller size, less developed organs and rapid rate of growth and development.

“They absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to metabolise or eradicate toxic substances from their bodies.”

Risky

The WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said the world faces a mounting problem of e-waste which is putting many lives and health at risk.

He said; “with mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent international forum described as a mounting “tsunami of e-waste,” putting lives and health at risk.

“In the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution, we need to rally to protect our most valuable resource –the health of our children – from the growing threat of e-waste.”

The global health organisation said workers aiming to recover valuable materials such as copper and gold, are at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances, including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

The WHO added: “For an expectant mother, exposure to toxic e-waste can affect the health and development of her unborn child for the rest of its life.”

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“Potential adverse health effects include negative birth outcomes, such as stillbirth and premature births, as well as low birth weight and length.

“Exposure to lead from e-waste recycling activities has been associated with significantly reduced neonatal behavioural neurological assessment scores, increased rates of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioural problems, changes in child temperament, sensory integration difficulties, and reduced cognitive and language scores,” said Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, the lead WHO author on the report.

Also speaking, the lead WHO author of the report, Marie-Noel Drisse, said; “a child who eats just one chicken egg from Agbogbloshie, a waste site in Ghana, will absorb 220 times the European Food Safety Authority daily limit for intake of chlorinated dioxins.

“Improper e-waste management is the cause. This is a rising issue that many countries do not recognise yet as a health problem. If they do not act now, its impacts will have a devastating health effect on children and lay a heavy burden on the health sector in the years to come.”

Way forward

WHO said action is urgently required to protect the millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide whose health states are jeopardised by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices.

“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,” said Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the WHO.

“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.”

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