Sometime last year Chris Carrol, a National Geographic writer, wrote a report about what he saw while researching what happens to e-waste from the developed world. It goes roughly like this: A random recycler in the United States of America sells used computers to brokers who have connections in developing countries. These brokers load them in containers and send them to, say Ghana, where children tear them apart to salvage what they can of it.
He describes how he saw children smash up old computers and pull them apart to reveal the wirings. These were then piled on top of old tires, set on fire and left to burn for about 15 or 20 minutes. Young boys stood close by the fire, in the smoke, to make sure that all the covering on the wire was burned off. At the end of the burning session they picked up about 50 cents worth of copper wire from the burnt off wires. These were sold to metal buyers.
This is probably not very strange for Nigerians; these kinds of things happen around us. We all know that feeling of nausea that Chris Carrol described in an interview with PRI’s The World. He said he had a headache and a general feeling of mild nausea for weeks after watching the children do this for only a couple of days. The kids told him that when they first started they got sick everyday, vomited, had headaches, but after a few weeks or months their bodies got used to it.
He also said that a fair percentage of the e-waste end up in China. When asked whether there are reports that say whether people who are exposed to this kind of toxicity are facing health problems, he replied that in a Chinese town, a test of the air and soil revealed that there are persistent toxins in the soil and the plants. Chinese officials refused to comment on the effects on humans.
I had a related discussion with Professor Egbokhare of the Distance Learning Centre, University of Ibadan. We talked about the increase in reported cases of cancer in Nigeria. He wondered whether that might be linked to the time of the Structural Adjustment Programme. During that period, as many of us know, people were making their own soaps by mixing all sorts of chemicals. Other household items were made locally and under unmonitored conditions. He wondered whether it might not have been possible that there were carcinogens in some of the chemicals used to make what was often used as soaps, toothpastes et cetera. during the period.
We also talked about Pure Water and the fact that much of what is on the streets today is not even approved by the National Agency for Foods and Drugs Administration and Control, NAFDAC. (And that is assuming that NAFDAC certificates mean anything; that is a discussion for another day.) In Lagos for instance, open incinerators burn everything, from decomposing food items to electronics. These kinds of garbage are burnt on almost every street corner. If it could be found that soil and plant contain persistent toxins it would be safe to assume that water from wells in these places also contain toxins. That is the kind of water that we often buy as Pure Water on the streets.
There is a serious increase in cases of cancer diagnosed in China, and the Chinese government is increasingly pressed to pay attention to it. At least tests are being carried out to find out the level of toxins in soils, plants and persons, even if the reports of the tests are never publicly available. In Nigeria, are we thinking about these issues at all?