Lower-income countries get a lot of old stuff from the U.S. and Europe. Used cars and buses and trucks, for instance, roll onto ships to be resold at their destination.
But you'd be surprised at what might be inside these vehicles. Two photocopiers plus two TVs can typically fit in a car. A bus might carry six to nine refrigerators, two to four washing machines, 20 TVs and maybe a few DVD players. A truck might hold up to 50 refrigerators and 50 TVs.
Inspectors are often oblivious. They routinely check containers full of used electronic equipment but usually do not check the inside of used cars. And that's a potential problem. Because it is against the law to ship used nonfunctional electronic equipment to countries that don't have safe facilities to dispose of any toxic waste from these products.
A new report by United Nations University and the Basel Convention Coordination Centre for the African Region released April 19, tries to determine just how much stuff is stuffed into the vehicles – and whether it's functional or not.
"Person in the Port Project: Assessing Import of Used Electrical and Electronic Equipment Into Nigeria" found that 18,300 tons of UEEE – that's the acronym — arrived in standard shipping containers in Nigeria in 2015 and 2016.
But the volume of UEEE stashed inside of cars and other vehicles is far higher. Another 41,500 tons during that same two-year period made its way to Nigerian markets and makeshift recycling centers in the trunks of cars, the flatbeds of pickups or the innards of old school buses.
"The high proportion coming in by stuffing it in vehicles was surprising," says Percy Onianwa, executive director of the Basel Convention Coordinating Centre for the African Region, and a consultant to the report. "Regulatory agencies had targeted UEEE imports mainly through containers, so they did not see even half of what was coming in."
In some cases, the electronic devices get a new life. If the items are in relatively good condition, Nigeria has a ready workforce to repair TVs, cell phones, computers and other items and get them back on the market, a legal enterprise. "It's well known that used electronic equipment is exported from the developed world to hubs in China, Southeast Asia, India and Africa," says Dr. Otmar Deubzer, scientific adviser to the United Nations University and an author of the report.
And a lot of it is destined for the dump.
The new report found that at least 26 percent of UEEE sent to Nigeria is e-waste, or discarded electronic equipment not intended for re-use. That 26 percent is illegal to ship, according to a 1989 U.N. treaty, the Basel Convention. The treaty bans exporting hazardous waste like old cellphones and computers that are beyond repair without official consent from the receiving country, which must have adequate facilities to deal with toxic waste. Less developed countries lack such safe facilities.
The report makes clear, says Olusegun Odeyingbo, U.N. University and lead author, that to get a handle on the size of the global problem of e-waste, countries have to look at what's coming in via the innards of old vehicles. About 55 percent of the used vehicles entering Nigerian ports carry UEEE.
There are many health risks for workers who dispose of these products – and their families and nearby populations are vulnerable as well. As workers break through glass and plastic or burn through wires to get at valuable components like copper, gold, and iron, they're exposed to lead, mercury, flame retardants, cadmium, chromium, dioxins and other components shown to have harmful effects on human health.
"Recyclers may get direct exposure to these metals and particulates, but they also get in the air, the ground can be contaminated, it contaminates their kids and other people in the community," says Dr. Aimin Chen, epidemiologist at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine. Chen studies the environmental impact of e-waste, but was not involved in the Nigeria study.
There is an association between exposure to components of e-waste and increased miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births as well as decreased lung function in children and adults, according to a 2013 review of evidence on the health consequences of exposure to e-waste published in The Lancet Global Health. Exposed children can be more withdrawn and do less well on cognitive tests.
"In some parts of the world, they burn e-waste to extract the wire," says Chen, whose research has sent him to e-waste sites in China, the Philippines and India. "Those workers have coughs, lung issues, skin rashes."
And workers in developing countries get scant protection in their dis-assembling work. "I've visited Ghana four times, which is notorious for e-waste dumping," says Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of the Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention at the University of California at Irvine. "I've seen lots of young people dismantling e-waste by hand with little or no protection. It's not easy to take apart electronics. In places that don't have the proper technology, they just use screwdrivers, hammers, whatever, and smash them. Until a few years ago, every computer had lead. You can be sure people are exposed. And from lead poisoning, you have IQ deficiency, hypertension and kidney disease."
"There's no doubt there are health problems associated with e-waste," says Ogunseitan. "We need more information, but we can't wait. Until things get better, we have to figure out how to protect people in developing countries." The ideas he's had and heard include protective clothing for people who work with e-waste, proper ovens to collect and contain toxic ash and simply installing showers so workers can wash off contaminants before going home to family and children.
Documenting the extent of the problem in one of the world's e-waste hubs, says Deubzer, is one important step in tackling the problem. "Already," he says, "the regulatory agency in Lagos has conducted training for its officials at the port to focus on looking in the cars."
Susan Brink is a freelance writer who covers health and medicine. She is the author of The Fourth Trimester, and co-author of A Change of Heart.