Lax regulation allows toxic compounds to enter air and water in Guiyu


Hepeng Jia/Zhengzhou and Shanghai, China

Electronic waste (e-waste) processing in a southern Chinese town is putting children at risk of lead poisoning and increasing the chance of miscarriages in pregnant women, scientists have said. But little is being done by either the authorities or research funding agencies to address the issue.

Guiyu, a town in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, recycles more e-waste than anywhere else in China. E-waste, including old computers, television sets and mobile phones, is dissolved in acid or burned to extract precious metals such as gold or palladium. But many in the industry work without protective clothing and the by-products of processing are discharged directly into the environment.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), Huo Xia, a professor of public health at Guangdong province-based Shantou University, said that, in 2006, there were twice as many children in Guiyu with dangerously high levels of lead (above 100 micrograms per litre)  and cadmium (above 20 micrograms per litre) in their blood than in the control group, composed of children from Chendian, a town near the coastal city of Xiamen in Fujian Province [1].

’The blood lead levels and blood cadmium levels in samples [from 289 newborns and 472 children in Guiyu] accumulated in 2004, 2006 and 2008 are also much higher than the control groups and national average levels,’ Huo said at the meeting, which was held between 17 and 19 September in Zhengzhou, Henan Province.

According to her unpublished figures, the rates of premature births and miscarriages in Guiyu between 2003 and 2007 were much higher than in control groups.

E-waste recycling has also dramatically increased the environmental concentration of heavy metals such as copper, chromium, and lead, as well as organic compounds such as dioxin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - commonly used as flame retardants. According to one earlier study, for example, the concentration of PBDEs in air from Guiyu was 100 times higher than that from other Chinese regions [2].

To date, however, most of the research on the impact of the industry on public health has been supported by environmental groups and not by government research funding bodies such as the National Natural Science Foundations.

Gu Jiang, vice-president of Shantou University, says that e-waste processing remains attractive to residents because it is very lucrative. Processing just one tonne of e-waste can yield 450 grams of gold and 200 kilograms of lead. The industry’s profitability also means that the local government avoids issuing health warnings or imposing stricter controls.