Toxic e-waste in Nigeria
Death is always very close to the poor and ignorant. That is why life expectancy is as low as 48 years in this part of the world, while it is well above 70 in many rich nations. In their desperate attempt to eke out a living, nothing is as important to the poor as the mitigation of their poverty. While searching for money, they often do not consider the hazards and health risks associated with some activities.
Money was probably uppermost on his mind when, in 1987, a farmer in Koko, Delta State, allowed an Italian businessman to dump 18,000 barrels containing radioactive and other elements, including asbestos and dioxins on his farm. He was also ignorant of the harmful effects of the waste. It was one of the few cases of toxic waste dumping that attracted global attention. The uproar generated when the barrels started leaking contributed to the 1989 Basel Convention that was aimed at controlling and regulating toxic waste disposal.
Since Koko, however, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Toxic wastes now arrive daily in Nigeria from Europe and the United States in the form of obsolete computers, old television sets, second-hand cell phones and other discarded electronics. In an attempt to bridge the digital divide, Nigeria is fast becoming a vast digital junk yard. It is estimated that about 400,000 second hand computers arrive at the Lagos ports monthly. Seventy-five percent of these are obsolete and unserviceable. From Alaba in downtown Lagos to the Computer, Ikeja in Lagos mainland and other parts of the country, many young people who would have been jobless make money by repairing and reselling some of the computers.
The problem with the PCs is that only one out of every four computers are thrown away annually. Huge piles of disemboweled computers and casings have emerged along many streets, waiting to be burnt. They are dumped in sprawling landfills across the country. The old and useless computers, TV sets contain hazardous substances. They contain mercury and heavy metals such as nickel, cadmium, chromium and cobalt, among others.
The flame retardant chemicals used for the casings contain lead. Hundreds of wretched scavengers looking for precious metal components of the disused electronics on the sprawling dump sites expose themselves daily to carcinogenic substances. What should compel actions is that when the dump sites containing these dangerous metals are set ablaze, the poisonous fumes are inhaled by the rich and the poor.
When the materials are dumped in streams and rivers, they pollute the source of drinking water to many rural dwellers. The toxins and heavy metals that seep into the water table below the surface are later drawn out from wells and boreholes for drinking. Scientists have found unusual presence of toxins and heavy metals in samples of soil and vegetables taken from some cities. Such vegetables pose serious health risks to human and animals that eat them. The toxins ultimately find their way into the food chain
In general, the Basel Ban prohibits the dumping of e-waste on poor countries which do not have any capacity to handle its recycling. The Convention has not been signed by the US that exports most of the obsolete computers. Though the trading of usable and functioning computers is legal, most of the electronics end up on the garbage heaps in Lagos and other parts of the country. In Europe where the Convention has been domesticated, unscrupulous merchants collude with exporters to bring in the junk. Exporters running away from the cost of recycling the e-waste at home find it easy to shift their environmental responsibilities on developing nations.
Dubious traders from Nigeria collude with unscrupulous supporters to violate the international control and regulation against dumping of e-waste. They mix bad ones with fairly used ones and then put the container in the reuse and functioning category. Toxic electronic waste also comes through Greek gifts from half-hearted donors whose aims is to transfer the environmental burden to Nigeria.
Domwatch, an anti-dumping group in a report said a UK-based organization once offered to donate 10,000 computers to a Nigerian NGO but only 2,000 of the computers were found to be okay and in reusable condition. The lax regulatory environment at home allows life to be endangered through the importation of disused and expired electronic gadgets. The multiplicity of agencies at the ports is there for what they can extort and not to protect the nation against dumping of harmful products. The Standard Organization of Nigeria is so inept that the country has been turned into one huge destination for fake and substandard products.
The Government of Lagos State that has done very well in the area of environmental sanitation and beautification has an additional responsibility of saving the people from the toxic effects of e-waste that is being set on fire in many6 parts of the state. Being the place where the consumption of computers, both good and bad ones, is largest, the government should set the pace, as usual, by formulating a sound regulatory framework for the safe and environmentally sustainable disposal of e-waste. Since the use of computers and other electronic equipment is becoming increasingly popular, deliberate steps should be taken to acquire recycling facilities.
The Federal Ministry of the Environment, and its counterparts at state levels should wake up to the responsibility of setting quality standards for all electronics and computers entering the country. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency should immediately commence an awareness campaign on the harmful effects of e-waste. Safe methods for disposing the electronic waste should be clearly spelt out. Since safer alternatives now exist for some of the toxic materials sued in manufacturing electronics and computers , the National Assembly and the various legislatures should make necessary laws to specify the category of electronics allowed in the country through donation or import.
The violation of such laws should carry appropriate punishments . Above all, the government should take a stand through the Foreign Affairs Ministry that electronics and computers will no longer be imported from countries such as Australia, Canada, and the US that have not endorsed the Basel standards for exporting such goods
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