African deaths reveal illegal trade in toxic waste
by Oliver Bullough (Reuters), Toronto Star (Ontario, Canada)
27 September 2006 (London) –
A scandal around the dumping of oil waste blamed for eight deaths in Ivory Coast has given rare insight into the world's murky trade in waste, much of it toxic, in defiance of global trade laws.
Activists campaigned against the dumping of toxic waste in Africa and the developing world in the 1980s, and regulations adopted in Basel in 1989 attempted to restrain the business.
But now, after the Ivorian scandal, they say the worst practices are back, and draw parallels with the 1987 Koko Beach scandal when Italian businessmen dumped deadly waste labelled as building materials on the Nigerian shore.
But instead of toxic waste, campaigners say the developed world is dumping old ships, often contaminated with asbestos and other poisonous chemicals, and electronic goods on poorer countries ill-equipped to deal with them.
"Unfortunately, because in Europe and other places, legislation has been put in place, people were dreaming that this matter would disappear," said Pierre Portas, deputy executive secretary of the Basel Convention Secretariat.
"But with globalisation, this has resurfaced, it is even on the increase."
Trafigura Beheer BV, which chartered the tanker that offloaded the waste in Ivory Coast, denies wrongdoing and rejects claims that the waste was high in poisonous hydrogen sulphide, but activists say the export of hazardous waste to countries with laxer regulations is widespread.
In a sign of how global the waste trade has become, the Probo Koala — the tanker concerned — was Korean-built, Greek-managed, Panamanian-flagged and Dutch-chartered.
The chemical sludge it unloaded in the main port of Abidjan was dumped around the city in August, causing a foul stench and prompting tens of thousands of people to seek medical attention with vomiting, stomach pains and other symptoms.
According to Greenpeace, whose anti-toxic waste campaigners blockaded the Probo Koala in an Estonian port on Monday, unscrupulous recyclers promise to find homes for the ever larger mountain of discarded electronic gadgets in the developing world.
"The whole trend is about taking the waste out of the backyards of the West, just getting rid of it basically," said Zeina Alhajj, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace International.
The Basel Action Network, a U.S. group campaigning for a crack-down on hazardous waste, said last year 500 containers of computers were being shipped into Lagos every month.
As many as 75 per cent of these ended up being dumped and burned, releasing hazardous fumes that can contain lead, cadmium, barium, beryllium, mercury and brominated flame retardants used in computer manufacture.
The United Nations estimates that 20 to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced every year, and checks by an European watchdog last year showed that 48 per cent of EU waste exports were illegal.
"Consumerism has led to this problem, which we see with everything from ships, to computers to refrigerators... when you open places to trade, you also open them to illegal traffic," Portas said.
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