Toxic Trade News / 28 November 2006
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E-junk becomes modern plague
by (Canada)
28 November 2006 (Ottawa) – Canadians threw out 67,000 tonnes of obsolete computers, cellphones and printers last year, probably not aware that this junk harbours toxins that can kill.

Now the UN Environment Program warns that much of the rich world's electronic junk is being dumped in developing countries where it can pose serious health risks to those who handle it.

Electronic trash is laced with arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, mercury and other toxic metals.

Canada is among more than 160 countries who are meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya in hopes of updating the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste to deal with the problem.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Program, told the conference consumerism was driving a "growing mountain of e-waste" and a lot of it is being dumped in poor African countries.

He referred to a recent case in Ivory Coast, where fumes from European toxic waste killed at least 10 people and left more than 70,000 seeking medical treatment.

Now the impoverished country is spending $30 million to retrieve the waste and send it back to France.

"This is a scar on the conscience of the international community," said UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall.

"A poor country coming out of a civil war with little money, a country with many living on less than a dollar a day, is footing the bill for cleaning up toxic waste which has killed some of its citizens and poisoned thousands more."

He cited a recent study of the marine environment that found heavy metals and other contaminants from obsolete electronic goods are starting to appear in coastal waters and marine sediments in Asia.

The Basel Convention, of which Canada is a signatory, was intended to prevent dumping of hazardous waste in poor countries. It requires exporters to obtain prior, informed consent of any country receiving waste.

But that regulation is being thwarted, partly because of corruption in recipient countries, and partly because it is hard to distinguish toxic waste from second-hand equipment that could still be useful.

Developing countries have proposed an amendment to the Basel Convention that would place a complete ban on the export of hazardous waste to their shores.

About 65 countries, including EU members, now have ratified the amendment but Canada has not, said Sarah Westervelt of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network. She hopes Canada will support the amendment.

Joe Wittwer, an expert at Environment Canada, said Canada will support a strong resolution on dumping of e-waste at the meeting in Nairobi, but he defended the "informed consent" approach.

In the United States alone, some 14 million to 20 million personal computers are thrown out annually. The number of cell phone users will reach two billion by 2008, and studies say cell phones tend to be thrown out within 18 months.

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