‘Help! We are dying of e-waste pollution’

For every new laptop or next generation iPhone released, there are a slew of redundant old devices that wind up auctioned on eBay or donated to local charities. While some discarded electronics can be re-used once or twice, eventually every product reaches the end of its lifespan, becoming electronic waste or e-waste. The rapidly growing inventory of outdated electronics fuels a growing e-waste recycling industry which gives way to the release of poisonous gases. Such activity takes place at Elias Estate in Owode Elede, Lagos state. FUNMI SALOME JOHNSON reports.

It was around midday and it was a Tuesday. The weather was scorching hot. Some had gone to work while others mainly traders or nursing mothers and artisans were home going about their day to day activities with keen delight. They were all looking forward to a break. It was a desire at the zenith of their minds. But alas, it was one too tall to achieve. Why? The reason is not farfetched. A thick smoke coupled with a pungent smell whiffed the neighbourhood. The source? The activities of smelters.

This is the unsavoury lot of the residents of Elias Estate, Owode Elede and Owode Onirin area of Lagos State who have been contending with the menace for some time now. Elder G.O Lawal is the Chairman of the Unity Estate Community Development Association (CDA) of the area. He explained that the entire residents of the area are fed up with the unhealthy activities of the smelters, adding that the situation is so serious that it is affecting and threatening their lives.

“We are tired of the activities of these people. They just don’t care how it affects others; they are only concerned about what they want to make. They don’t even care about themselves. We have made several reports to the police station, to the ministries of environment and health but all efforts from us to get government to assist us get rid of this situation has proved abortive.

We have written to the Lagos State Ministry of Health and Environment and up till this moment, we never got any response from them. We have arrested the people several times but almost immediately they are arrested, the police will release them and they will resume this unwholesome activity.”

Lawal further explained that it is so bad that even the grass in that neighbourhood don’t feel the same anymore. “The whole grass around here is not healthy anymore. They get withered and burnt by themselves without anyone burning them; it is as a result of this activity. I have been living in this neighbourhood for over twelve years. All our efforts to discontinue this unwholesome activity here have proved abortive.

“An incidenct happened here around March when one of those who buy tanks from those who sell around here wanted to carry the tank; unknown to the person, some of these unscrupulous men who burn wires and smelt metals had poured some chemicals in the tank. The chemical in the tank exploded and injured people in the neighbourhood. About three persons died from that incident. Even I was affected and ended up in the hospital.

The situation was really bad.” When asked what has been the response from the quarters they said they had written to, Lawal narrated the treatment they got from the representative of the Ministry of Health called in when the explosion occurred three months ago. “We called in the state Ministry of Health three months ago when that incident happened and a team led by one Mr Giwa came and interrogated me and some other members of the CDA.

My Vice and I took them into the Owode market and they discussed with the marketers of these products whom the smelters work for and they said they agreed to go and see them at their office in Alausa and that was the end of the story.

It is so pathetic” Another resident who has been in the community for over a dozen years, Sheikh Abdulwahab Alegbe also disclosed that the situation they have been experiencing as a result of the activities of these smelters is not palatable as it is seriously affecting the health of everybody around the place.

“All we are pleading is for government to come and take these people away from our neighbourhood so that we can breathe in fresh air that is devoid of unhealthy gas that could create havoc for our healths. We have written several letters to no avail. It is as if these people bribe the government officials which is why each time they are arrested, within the twinkling of an eye, they are released. This is not fair because all the things they are burning here is at the detriment of those of us who live and work here.

You cannot relax comfortably in the comfort of your home without perceiving this unpleasant odour coming from the burning. Our young infants are especially at risk; we have to be covering them extra all the time just to protect them from the dangers associated with the smell,” lamented Alegbe.

For Barrister Toyin Popoola who has lived in the area for over six years, the experience is not different as he disclosed that the activities of these men have caused more havoc than good. “We have arrested them, spoken to them, discussed with them but nothing good has come out of it. We have written letters to the government and the concerned agencies but till date no response has come from any of them. It is so sad. We are gradually dying here by the day.

The odour is highly unpleasant and so discomforting too. Government should please come to our aid before something more terrible than this happens.” However, for the smelters, they are only working for survival and past caring the dangers associated with what they do. While speaking with Thomas Okechukwu (original name withheld), he disclosed that their major work is to help those who have electric wires and cable and telephone cables to burn and extract the copper and aluminium in them which they eventually sell in bulk at the Owode Onirin market.

“We are majorly concerned with the burning and extracting of the copper and aluminium from the wires. Although when we sometimes get customers who want to sell unused wires to us, we also buy from them and extract the copper and aluminium to sell to those who buy in the market,” he disclosed.

Okechukwu disclosed that the metals extracted are sold to major buyers in the market who eventually sell them to big companies where they are used for other purposes. He disclosed further that they do not source the materials but only burn the wires and extract the valuables in them and return to those who hired them. When asked if he is aware of the inherent dangers associated with this kind of job, he smiled and said that Africans have high level of resistance to sickness.

“You know we are Africans and we are very strong people. We are not like the Oyibo man that gets sick anyhow. We are strong people and can not easily be down with things like this. Besides, we are only trying to make our daily survival since the jobs are not forthcoming out there,” said Okechukwu.

“For instance, after burning these cables (pointing to the cables on the ground), we may not realise up to N800 on them. All we do is burn and extract. It’s those who sell the copper and aluminium that really get of the money. The only time we get good money is when we are able to get customers who will sell cables to us,” he added. However, experts have a different analysis to this type of job.

According the Basel Africa Network, much of Europe’s e-waste winds up in Ghana or in Lagos. There, it is collected, dismantled and processed into its most basic components. Although it is a good thing to have updates of these electronics and technological facilities, what happens to the old ones? How well disposed are they? How are they recycled? “Most of this so-called recycling is largely unregulated and informal, and potentially serves as a major source of environmental contamination and a hazard to human health. While we would like to think that recycling our old electronics is a socially and environmentally responsible action, the ultimate fate of e-waste and its impacts are not clear.”

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, a panel of experts discussed what’s being done and what more is needed in order to better understand and regulate e-waste around the world. According to the report, Sanmi Areola, a toxicologist at the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville, United States of America said that most of these countries where they recycle either don’t have the laws to protect them from the dangers of the ills associated with such recycling or where there are laws, they are not implemented.

“They don’t have the laws, and where they do exist, they’re not implemented. In many cases, people aren’t even aware of the risks associated with their work” Areola continued “In Nigeria, e-waste fills informal landfills, which threaten to expose people living near the dumpsites to toxins through water, soil and air contamination.

“What’s worse, to reduce the build-up, the piles of electronic rubbish are periodically set on fire, releasing toxic polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants into the air. “And even if mounds of e-waste were never burned, the country’s tropical climate accelerates these chemical agents’ release into the environment.

Numerous materials found in electronics are known to cause neurobehavioral, reproductive or teratogenic problems, or to act as carcinogens. This is adding an already overstressed community plagued by disease and malnutrition,” he lamented.

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