PhD Studentship: Towards Sustainable E-waste treatment in Africa
Urbanisation and industrial activity in Africa is increasing rapidly including treatment of e-waste to recover valuable resources. While many economic and environmental benefits from such activity exist, there are also risks. This project investigates human exposure to pollution from e-waste treatment in Africa and enhances understanding of how its adverse environmental health impacts may be minimised while retaining its important economic benefits.
UNEP estimates 20-50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated globally every year. Consistent with the concept of the “circular economy” that waste is a resource rather than a problem, treatment of e-waste to recover valuable resources like rare earth metals offers substantial economic and environmental benefits. However, evidence also reveals risks associated with e-waste treatment. A particular issue is emissions of chemicals added to electronic and electrical equipment to impart flame retardancy. Due to concerns about their health impacts and ability to accumulate in the food chain and expose us via diet (akin to DDT), some have been banned. Studies by co-I Harrad demonstrate substantial exposure to flame retardants in populations living near e-waste treatment sites in China. Moreover, exposure of young children consuming food reared by subsistence farmers at such sites exceeded health based limit values promulgated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). China has since moved to regulate and minimise the environmental impacts of e-waste treatment. This has led to an increase in such activity elsewhere, including Ghana and Nigeria, where regulatory activities to date have been mostly preventative but largely unenforceable. Our overall objective is to minimise adverse impacts of e-waste treatment while maximising its substantial potential economic benefits. To do so, we will generate data to demonstrate the risks to more effectively convince and work with local populations to minimise such risks, while retaining the economic benefits.
- Quantify exposure to flame retardants and health impacts in populations exposed to e-waste treatment.
- Further understanding of factors driving e-waste treatment in 2 African countries to maximise economic benefits while minimising the risks.
Strand 1. Measure concentrations of flame retardants in air, soil, sediment, and foodstuffs reared in the vicinity of e-waste treatment. We will measure concentrations of flame retardants in air, soil, sediment, and locally-reared foodstuffs (e.g. eggs, fish, meat etc.) consumed by the local population. To place these data in context, “control” samples will also be analysed, comprising: air, soil, and sediment from locations of similar degrees of urbanisation but not knowingly impacted by e-waste activities, along with produce from outlets (e.g. markets) where food is sourced from other locations.
Strand 2. Quantify human exposure to flame retardants and associated health risks for populations in the vicinity of e-waste treatment. Questionnaires administered locally will gather information on the nature, extent and duration of exposure to e-waste, as well as the extent of dietary items reared locally. These data, and information on air inhalation and incidental soil ingestion rates, will be combined with contaminant concentrations from strand 1, to estimate exposure to flame retardants, both for “control” populations and those impacted by e-waste treatment. We will also differentiate between various population groups (e.g. e-waste workers, adults, children) in/directly involved in e-waste treatment on the basis of the nature/extent/duration of their exposure to e-waste. Exposure estimates will be compared with health based limits such as those of the US EPA.
Strand 3. Combining understanding of the risks of e-waste treatment with its benefits to ensure its sustainability. We will work with local populations to communicate risks associated with poor e-waste treatment practices, and provide practical guidance on how risks may be minimised without undermining their livelihood’s significance and value.
The project delivers multiple benefits to the CoIs, project partners and their respective countries. It will provide information on the nature and extent of exposure to flame retardants and associated health risks arising from e-waste treatment, with potential global impact via regulation of such chemicals under the UNEP Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants. The project maps directly onto the UN sustainable development goals. Healthier cities where the right of all citizens to a sustainable livelihood is recognised, are likely to be less unequal and more prosperous; partly because the working population’s life expectancy, quality of life and productivity is enhanced, but also because urban governance structures and processes will be inclusive, participatory and responsive.
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