e-waste: Impact on Environment and Health

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PC: Author

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is an emerging problem in developing as well as in developed nations. e-waste is a term used to cover all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its users as waste without the intent of reuse. It is also referred to as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), electronic waste or e-scrap in different regions. Higher discard rates of electronics, rapid changes in technology, changes in media (tapes, software, MP3), falling prices and planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast-growing surplus of electronic waste around the globe. e-waste is the world's fastest growing waste stream, rising by 3-5 per cent annually, due to the decreased lifespan of electronic items (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Dump of e-waste (PC: Author)

In the absence of proper collection and disposal systems, awareness and regulations, the problem is rather more acute in developing nations.. It is forecasted to increase to 49.8 Mt of e-waste in 2018. Safe and sustainable disposal of End-of-Life (EOL) electronic waste has been considered to be a major sphere of concern by the government, public and animal health authority due to its perilous impact on human life and environment, arising from its hazardous and highly toxic constituents. Disposal of such heterogeneous mix of organic materials, metals, etc. entails a scientific approach and special treatment to prevent exposing the inhabitants to the consequential damage implications arising from leakage and dissipation of the same for effectively mitigating the emerging risk phenomena escalating with the passage of time.

Categories of e-waste

Basically, EEE are classified in six categories. For each category, its original function, weight, size, material composition etc. differ from each other. These end of-life attributes determine that each category has different waste quantities, economic values, as well as potential environmental and health impacts through inappropriate recycling. Six categories of e-waste are summarized as follows:-

  • Temperature exchange equipment: commonly referred to as, cooling and freezing equipment. Examples are refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps etc.

  • Screens, monitors: Typical equipments comprises televisions, monitors, laptops, notebooks, and tablets.

  • Lamps: Typical equipments comprises straight lamps and LED lamps.

  • Large equipment: Typical equipments comprises washing machines, clothes dryers, dish washing machines, electric stoves, large printing machines, copying equipment and photovoltaic panels.

  • Small equipment: Typical equipments comprises vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, electric shavers, scales, calculators, radio sets video cameras, electrical and electronic toys, small electrical and electronic tools, small medical devices, small monitoring and control instruments.

  • Small information technology and telecommunication equipments: Typical equipments comprises mobile phones, GPS, pocket calculators, routers, personal computers, printers, telephones etc (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Categories of e-waste (Source- UNU, 2014)

Global generation of e-waste

The global quantity of e-waste generation in 2014 was around 41.8 Mt. The amount of e-waste is projected to grow to 49.8 Mt in 2018, e- waste generation is also increases as the production is hiked in past 4-5 years. Utmost e-waste producer country in 2014 was United States, 7.1 Mt (22.2 kg/inh.), followed by China, 6 Mt (4.4kg/inh.), Japan, 2.1Mt (15.6 Mt.), Germany, 1.8 Mt (25 kg/inh.) and India 1.7 Mt (1 kg/inh.). Highest e-waste generator continent was Asia (16.0 Mt) afterward, Americas (11.7Mt), Europe (11.6Mt), Africa (1.7 Mt) and least producer was Oceania (0.6Mt).

Status in India

India was the fifth largest producer of e- waste in year 2014 with per capita generation of 1kg/h. According to The Hindu, 2016 India has second largest smart phone market. Global System for Mobile Communications, 2017 reported about 310 million new mobile users will be added in next 3 years. The e-waste received from different sources predominantly comprising of the following EEEs as televisions and desktops 68%, servers 27%, mobile phone 1% and import from developed countries 2%, respectively. In India, the problem of e-waste generation and disposal is steadily attaining an alarming dimension with passage of time. It has been reported that 900-1000 computers are dismantled every day in New Delhi alone. In 2005, about 1000 tons of plastics, 1000 tons of iron, 300 tons of lead, 0.23 tons of mercury, 43 tons of nickel and 350 tons of copper were expected to be generated as e-waste in Bengaluru alone. These figures are set to increase by ten-fold by 2020.

Material fractions in e-waste

In WEEE diverse range of material is found. It is difficult to give a generalized material composition for the entire waste stream. However, most studies examine five categories of materials: ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals, glass, plastics, and others. Metals are the major common materials found in e-waste representing about 60%. Plastics are the second largest component by weight representing about 15%. The presence of heavy metals like Hg, Pb, Cd, Cr etc. in the e-wasted components made them hazardous and toxic and attracted the attention of e-waste stakeholders to arrange a separate treatment place for them.

Impact on environment

Villagers and migrant workers use environmentally unsound techniques to recycle e-waste. These include the heating and manual removal of components from printed circuit boards, open burning to reduce volumes and recover metals and open acid digestion of e-waste to recover precious metals. The waste-acid, rich in heavy metals, is then discarded onto the soil or into waterways. Many e-waste contaminants are spread into the air via dust. This is a major exposure pathway for humans through ingestion, inhalation and skin absorption.

Impact on human health

Workers and local residents are exposed to toxic chemicals through inhalation, dust ingestion, dermal exposure and oral intake. Inhalation and dust ingestion impose a range of potential occupational hazards including silicosis. They are particularly important routes of human exposure to dioxins, lead, copper, cadmium, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), chromium, mercury and other metals and carcinogens. Overall, human health risks from E-waste include breathing difficulties, respiratory irritation, coughing, choking, pneumonitis, tremors, neuropsychiatric problems, convulsions, coma and even death. Workers suffer high incidences of birth defects, infant mortality, tuberculosis, blood diseases, anomalies in the immune system, malfunctioning of the kidneys and respiratory system, lung cancer, under development of the brain in children and damage to the nervous and blood systems.

Exposure to the e-waste is a complex process and it is exaggerated by various factors like routes (oral route through food and water, through Inhalation, through skin contact), and sources of e-waste, types of waste, length and type of recycling method used, self-additive, synergistic and antagonistic activities of compound present in waste, and physiological vulnerability (pregnant women and children). Of particular concern is the exposure of children and pregnant women to lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals, as even relatively low levels of exposure can cause serious and, in some cases, irreversible neurological damage and threaten the development of the child. In pregnant women increases in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and premature births, and reduced birth weights and birth lengths associated with exposure to e-waste.


The problem of e-waste is growing in alarming proportions globally including India. It requires formal treatment of the waste, education of the people about the hazardous effects of the wastes and rules regarding treatment and management of waste must come in to force to control the problem of e-waste.


*Ph.D. Scholar, Division of Veterinary Public Health, ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research, Institute, Izatnagar, Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh)- 243 122.

^Ph.D. Scholar, Division of Pathology, ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar, Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh)- 243 122.


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