Ghana: Developed-world Electronics Dumping Ground
Toxic chemicals fill the air at a scrapyard near Ghana's capital, Accra; a near silent scene as workers stoke the flames of burning waste. The long-term effects of contamination could have serious consequences for the district of Agbogbloshie; chronic pain, stillbirths, a polluted food chain - and cancer. Dangers that could affect people for generations to come.
It's considered to be one of the largest e-waste dumping sites in the world. For just a few U.S. dollars a day, locals forage through mountains of castaway electronics; anything from mobile phones to refrigerators, and burn them for metals like iron and brass to sell.
The extraction process, though, is releasing hazardous toxins into the air. And the effects range from short-term ailments to life-threatening disease.
"Sometimes I find it too difficult to breathe, because of the smoke... It also gives me chest pains," explained one resident.
But the issues are not just affecting the respiratory system, "When I stand, sometimes I have this terrible pain in my waist and I have headaches because of all the heat and smoke we inhale," said another worker.
A study conducted by environmental network groups, IPEN and the Basel Action Network, found that the dioxins being released during combustion were at dangerously high levels - and extremely hazardous.
"During the burning of their scrubs to obtain the precious metals they are looking for, a lot of fumes which contain organic pollutants are being emitted into the atmosphere and people inhale it," said co-author of the study in Accra, Jindrich Petrlik.
"The main risks are related to overall contamination by toxic chemicals like dioxins and others, and this can harm people in the longer term by chronic exposure. The chemicals can make people sick... for example cancer or harm to the immune and neurological systems."
It's a vicious circle for the people of Agbogboshie. With the little money they make, escaping the scrapyard can be difficult. That's despite Ghana being one of the fastest developing economies in the world last year.
"Throughout our survey, when we interacted with the inhabitants of the e-waste recycling site we realised that some of them are aware of the dangers of the activities. Those who are aware also know that measures are needed to intervene, but they weigh that up against economic gain. So, it's very difficult for them to move off the site, even though they know about the pollutant levels that they are exposed to," said Anita Asamoah, who's a senior research scientist for Ghana's Atomic Energy Commission.
Findings in the report by IPEN and the Basel Action Network, NGOs which work to eliminate toxic pollutants and the export of them, discovered it's not just the air people breath at the dump site, but other basic human needs that are putting locals at huge risk.
Amid the smog-filled landscape, chickens and goats can be found scavenging the smouldering and charred ground for any food they can find. And those grazing in and around Agbogloshie are fast becoming a big part of the problem. The analysis revealed that eating one single egg would put a person 220 times over the European food safety limit for chlorinated dioxins.
"We decided to pick free-range chicken egg samples, because these free-range chickens would be a good indicator for information regarding the pollutant levels in food contamination, because they also had traces of active soil and dust samples. We realised that as the chickens or hens forage around fields picking up food samples... they get [toxic waste] into their system and invariably humans feed on these chickens, as well as the eggs," said environmental chemist, Eric Akortia, who was also a part of the study.
Drone footage from above Agbogloshie shows the sprawling slum, with hundreds of umbrellas from market stalls highlighting the extent the community relies on waste. Selling what they can from scrap electronics, and perhaps more worryingly - food products from the animals feeding off the toxic land.
The principal investigator behind the report also stressed his concern at the unprecedented contamination after those findings; "We found the levels of toxic chemicals in chicken eggs very alarming because it's in fact the highest levels ever found [in chicken eggs]. The harm to the people living in Agbogbloshie is not only from the consumption of free-range chicken eggs, but all food grown at the place. There are cows, goats raised at the scrapyard and we assume that people consume their milk and meat," Jindrich Petrlik again told us.
The food chain has proven that mothers could be risking their own children's health, by passing on the deadly threat for generations to come - through breastfeeding.
"From my study, yes, we had some appreciable levels of these pollutants in breast milk... through breastfeeding, we pass it on to our children. And it could be a generational transfer. I can pass it to my child and my daughter can also pass it on," senior research scientist, Dr. Anita Asamoah told us.
And the waste continues to pile in. In an electronic age when new devices and updates are constantly being rolled out to consumers, the throwaway culture of North America, Europe and Asia are fuelling the problem. It's estimated by anti-toxic waste campaign groups that the European Union exports 350,000 tons of e-waste annually. Around 200,000 tons of the globe's discarded electronics find their way to one slum in Accra - that's the equivalent weight of more than 1,000 blue whales.
Endless markets selling battery packs can be found along roads, and behind the scenes families struggle to get by in extreme poverty, washing clothes and caring for young children in makeshift housing - all the while dependent on the money they get from the scrapyard to survive.
"Developed countries export their waste to developing ones... depends also on the routes, but in general, not only the European Union exports e-waste, it's also the U.S. and Canada, South Korea, Japan and of course also, locally generated electronic waste… to places like the e-waste scrapyard in Agbogbloshie," Petrlik went on to explain.
The study by IPEN and the Basel Action Network was done with the purpose of pressuring the global community into rethinking regulations, that can be manipulated when it comes to electronic waste.
"The research leads to more serious talks at the international level about rules and international legislation to control the e-waste exports outside of developed countries to developing countries like Ghana. The scrapyard growth and the amount of the e-waste... is increasing year-to-year; so, if nothing will be done, the problem will only be bigger and a larger population can be affected by the overall contamination of the sight and its surroundings," said Mr. Petrlik.
The Basel Convention currently allows exporters to ship off electronic waste, claiming that they are moving it overseas for repair. But while green advocates battle for changes to key guidelines, people in Agbogbloshie are beginning to realise the severe risks of the present - and the future.
"We don't want to do this job until we become old. We pray that in the near future we will get help to find a different job, so we can leave this one.
"The smoke and chemicals from the plastics we burn can affect my son," one worker told Ruptly.
Local doctors fear, "It is a big issue. The problem is not only for those that at Agbogbloshie, it's all of us. That's why it is they need to quickly intervene to solve this problem."