We have heard and read a lot about medical waste in the healthcare industry. Nursing homes, hospitals and doctor’s offices are some of the main venues of medical waste disposal. Even in public bathrooms you will see a special case for needle disposal for diabetics and hopefully not for drug users. Unfortunately, Parks Department workers in NYC are picking up an average of 5000 needles a week in the Bronx.
The classification of health care waste includes all the waste products from research centers, nursing homes, hospitals and labs. About eighty percent of medical waste is considered “ non hazardous”. The rest of the 20% may pose radioactive or chemical peril to human health and the environment. In the past, details of safe and unsafe medical waste disposal has been publicized , but disposed electrical health care equipment has an individual category called e waste. Many specialized medical devices such as electrocardiograms, microscopes , sphygmomanometers ( an instrument used for measuring blood pressure. It includes an inflatable rubber cuff that connects to a column of mercury), spectrophotometers ( used in laboratories for the study of chemical substances. Spectrophotometry is often used in measurements of enzyme activities, determinations of protein concentrations). In certain instances these mechanisms come into contact with various biological and chemical substances that could be harmful to humans especially children.
According to Science Direct the subjugation of children within the e waste recycling industry is frightening. Kid’s bodies have less of an ability to detoxify dangerous substances. They are still growing so their intake of food , water and air in proportion to their weight and height is much higher compared then that of adults. If we take into consideration the lifestyle of children it is clear that they spend much more time outside where hazardous exposures can be close by. Tots are commonly apt to crawl on the ground and put non food items in their mouths. Adolescents are ignorant and innocent about the dangers of exposure to e waste. Their curiosity causes them to touch harmful articles which adults would know to keep away from. Finally, since children are just starting their life span , there is a threat of living for the duration of their lives with injuries or even handicaps due to exposure to these toxic substances.
Let’s look at a typical household with a family. How many electronic devices have you gotten rid of in the last few years? It could be old TVs or laptops, out of date printers etc. The fastest growing source of waste today is electronics. Even though many U.S electronics industries claim to dispose and recycle their e waste products properly, a new investigation claims that they are not being recycled properly in the United States.
Jim Puckett of Earth Fix, has a watchdog group called Basel Action Network. Puckett wanted to know where the recycled e waste goes to in America. There is a hazardous waste dumping treaty called the Basel Convention which Puckett’s organization monitors. Last year his forces put GPS tracking devices inside 200 old computers, TV’s and printers. Individuals from Puckett’s staff dropped off these tracked items off at donation centers and take back programs around America ( sometimes called green centers). Fortunately most of the tagged items remained here in our country. However, about a third of the electronic items were shipped out of the country and at least some ended up in dangerous foreign junkyards. Puckett tracked several of these objects using an app on his IPad that led him to track them in a remote city in Hong Kong. He was able to view workers smashing old printers without using any protective coverings such as face masks. They were wearing aprons only, which became dusted with black toner ink. This toner ink is known to cause respiratory problems and even possibly worse ailments. He noticed broken fluorescent bulbs which were used to light up flat screen monitors. When broken these lights will emit dangerous mercury vapor.
Science Direct reported that e waste is increasing rapidly and multiplied by objectionable donation of electronic equipment from super power countries, like America to third world countries. e waste is now a global problem and approximately 75% to 80% is shipped to countries in Africa and Asia for disposal and recycling. The Basel Convention has launched PACE ( Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment). PACE provides requirements as what components are suitable for donations of functioning computer machinery. These principles will be able to eliminate mislabeled donatable components from being exported when they are in reality e waste.
What makes e waste so biohazardous?
Plastics are burned purposely at low temperatures to recover precious metals. Then the metals from electronic chips and other salvageable metal items are saved. This burning releases heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead into the atmosphere. The vapors released by this low temperature burning often contain polyhalogenated dioxins and furans ( compounds which can compromise the immune system). Toxic products such as the release of lead saturated fumes are direct results from the burning of circuit boards to recover rare and precious metals.
The release of dangerous chemicals into the environment is hazardous because it can lead to contamination of food and harm the natural environment in underdeveloped countries including, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Kenya , Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand and Pakistan.
How can we protect American consumers, foreign citizens and especially our children from e waste hazards?
1) All countries whether developed or third world countries should have the same acceptable standards for e waste management.
2) Research programs should be continued and increased on the potential risks of e waste recycling because we will not be able to completely obliterate all these harmful effects.
3) We must educate all citizens, young and old and especially our children about the risks of touching and inhaling e waste.
4) There must be access to information technology for countries such as Africa. This is crucial for their economic and social development. The UNMD ( United Nations Millennium Development ) has set goals for e waste education for developing countries.
What are some ways to alleviate and discourage the unsafe methods of medical e waste disposal?
1) Some companies will offer free take back services. Nokia and Lenovo in China are on the forefront of free take back services.
2) The Minamata Convention is a worldwide effort to discontinue the use of mercury in health care by the year 2020. Thermometers and sphygmomanometers are being replaced by newer and safer health care apparatuses. However old school physicians still like the classical mercury sphygmomanometers which is way they still remain on the market. Health care facilities will have to make sure about the exact life span of medical equipment prior to purchase and how to dispose when they expire. Minamata Convention is able to trace mercury substances from the beginning of its production till its disposal.
3) There is a movement to prohibit the export of second hand electronics to Africa. This will have a major impact on the ability of developing countries of reaching the goals of the United Nations Millennium Development. Even though technically the problem is not with the equipment it is with the lack of e waste regulation.
There is also a new company called, East African Compliant Recycling. It is a full scale e waste recycling plant that will be launched in Nairobi, Kenya. This plant will be the model that will eventually be used throughout Africa. Not only will it prevent unsafe e waste disposal for the environment and the people, but it will create jobs and recover valuable materials that can be sold and reused.
4) It is also crucial for America to learn from Japan. This country has been in the forefront of e waste management. Already in the 1990’s, Japan was the first country to enact e waste laws. The Japanese model has been admired by Russia as well. Japan recycles more than 2 million tons of e waste each year. As opposed to America with only 679,000 tons annually. In 2000, Japan introduced, the Manifest System. This procedure begins tracking e waste from the time it leaves the facility where it was produced initially until it reaches the final e waste facility. No other country has this cradle to grave system yet.
According to the Department of Japanese Studies, Japan is the most environmentally aware country in the world. Chris McMoran stated that the reason that Japan is on the cutting edge of this e waste management is due largely to its tragic history with industrial waste as well as pollution during the decades immediately post war.
Reusable metals in Japan are being recycled in very practical ways. Instead of spending money importing these rare metals why not retrieve them and send them back to a factory in Japan to be used productively again? The bottom line is money talks. Even though Japan is being praised for being at the forefront of the worldwide “green” campaign, it is more the profit motive than the love of nature that is the catalyst.
It is compulsory to recycle items such as automobiles, computers and other electronic equipment in Japan. It impels recycling by imposing strict laws on both the consumers themselves and the manufacturers or electronic components.
5) We must help developing countries improve the working conditions for all e waste workers so that they will properly protected. A one hundred percent elimination of child labor in this industry paramount.
How can respectful consumers help in solving the problem of e waste?
▪Instead of automatically buying a new PC, the EPA proposes that you first consider upgrading software or hardware on your present computer.
▪Search for charity organizations in your vicinity that may want your old electronics.
▪There are local electronic donations centers in most towns. Examples are Staples and Apple.
▪Become an e waste expert. Organize collections of old electronics in your neighborhoods and then bring the e waste to the recycling center personally.
Each state has there own e waste policies. You can go to Directory of Representatives and type in your zip code to encourage your state representatives to take a stand on e waste. ( As of now there is presently no mandatory federal recycling legislation.)