Ghana-United States: Dangerous ‘dirty little secret of the high-tech industry’

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A global investigation into the dumping of hundreds of millions of pounds of electronic waste around the world has revealed that while the practice threatens health conditions in Ghana, it also threatens security in the United States. Philips and Sharps remain defiant about their responsibility to recycle their old products.

Peter Klein and a team of graduate journalism students from the University of British Columbia have carried out an investigation which reveals the electronic industry polluting the environment and poisoning the people who live and work among the waste, scavenging for scrap metals in Ghana and China.

“This is the dirty little secret of the high-tech industry,” says Jim Puckett, an e-waste activist who first exposed China’s digital dumping grounds years ago.

Health Hazards

According to medical experts, the dismantling of electronics and the melting of soldered circuit boards to remove valuable chips causes high lead levels in both children and in maternal breast milk, which causes problems with the brain, kidneys and bone marrow in children and fetus.

In the scrap yards of Accra, unprotected workers, many of whom are children, dismantle computers and televisions sets in search of metals that can be sold. The remaining plastic, cables and casing is either burnt or simply dumped.

Some of the samples contain toxic metals which are known to interfere with sexual reproduction, while some contain high level of chlorinated dioxins, known to promote cancer.

Security Scare

In addition to the health and environmental hazards of e-waste dumps, Klein and his team found another danger of e-waste dumping at an open-air market in Ghana.

Hard drives from the United States and other developed countries are being resold, sometimes to criminal gangs who mine them for credit card data, Social Security numbers and other identifying information.

A hard drive and data from Northrop Grumman, the U.S. defense contractor was purchased in Ghana by Klein and his team: The hard drive contained sensitive information about multimillion-dollar contracts with the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security.

Efforts towards Recycling

While there is an international treaty banning the export of hazardous waste, the United States is one of only a few countries which have not ratified it.

Some companies are making progress towards taking responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products. However, Philips and Sharp stand out for refusing to accept that they are responsible for recycling their old products.

The stance of these powerful multinationals is ensuring there will always be a digital divide that they prefer remains hidden. A dangerous divide which involves a host of unprotected workers in developing countries who are left with a most dangerous toxic legacy.

In 2008 a Greenpeace team, including campaigner Kim Schoppink and photographer Kate Davison, went to Ghana to document and gather evidence of what really happens to electronic waste from developed countries.

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