Human Health Impacts in China

Geeraerts, Mutafoglu, and Illes (2015) demonstrate that illegal e-waste shipments from the EU have been, and probably still are, contributing to significantly increased incidences of chronic disease in China, threatening, not just workers at the informal sites but also residents of e-waste recycling areas and adjacent regions, as well as future generations. Illegal exports from the EU (together with exports from North America and other advanced economies) have resulted, and probably still result, in a high prevalence of skin, gastric, respiratory, hematic, neurological, prenatal, natal, and infant diseases in China. These diseases result from the exposure to e-waste and its hazardous components via informal processing and recycling and the resulting intake of contaminants through diet, inhalation, and soil/dust ingestion.

Select scientific studies (Grant et al. 2013) focusing on China show an association between exposure to e-waste and compromised physical health such as decreased lung function (i.e. lower forced vital capacity); decreased physical growth of children (i.e. lower weight, height, and body-mass index); reduced reproductive health (i.e. increases in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and premature births, and reduced birth weights and birth lengths); and changes in cellular expression and function (i.e. increased DNA damage).

Geeraerts, Mutafoglu, and Illes (2015) in particular sought to quantify the impact of lead poisoning resulting from e-waste exposure on children’s neurological development, expressed in terms of children’s IQ scores. It has been suggested that for each 10 pg/dl of blood lead, IQ is reduced by at least one to three points (Morgan 2013 quoted in Science Communication Unit 2013). It is indeed well known that lead, like other heavy metals, persists in the environment and leads to poisoning at low concentrations through bioaccumulation in plants and animals or bioconcentration in the food chain (Song and Li 2014). Furthermore, the oral ingestion of contaminated food is an important pathway for the uptake of lead, and children in particular are susceptible to heavy metal exposure due to high gastrointestinal uptake (Ogunseitan 2013). Lead in human bodies is known to interfere with behaviour and learning abilities (Grant et al. 2013; Song and Li 2014).

Based on data from various studies, Geeraerts, Mutafoglu, and Illes (2015) concluded that almost all children living in informal e-waste recycling centres such as Guiyu and Taizhou are, or at least have been, subject to a level of lead exposure that exceeds the dietary intake value per day at which neurodevelopmental toxicity affects children as determined by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (EFSA 20 1 0).[1] Geeraerts, Mutafoglu, and Illes (2015) also refer to several studies that state that very high average blood lead levels have been found in children in Guiyu and Taizhou, indicating that the daily dietary intake value (as determined by the EFSA Panel) has been exceeded multiple times.[2]

According to Geeraerts, Mutafoglu, and Illes (2015), this implies that potentially the neurological development of all the children living in these informal e-waste recycling areas has been affected. It was estimated that roughly between 16,000 and 26,000 children born in Guiyu in the period 1995-2013 have had blood lead levels exceeding the earlier mentioned daily dietary intake level and, as a result, have experienced a drop in intelligence due to the developmental neurotoxicity impact of informal e-waste recycling and dumping. For China as a whole, it was estimated that the neurological development of between 58,000 and 93,000 children born in the period 1995-2013 has been affected as a result of e-waste exposure. It was subsequently estimated that these children combined lost between 70,000 and 112,000 IQ points as a result of informal e-waste recycling and dumping activities, amounting to an average reduction of intelligence of 1.2 points per child.

Geeraerts, Mutafoglu, and Illes (2015), however, noted that these figures provide an initial order of magnitude estimate. More accurate estimates might be generated in future research on the basis of more detailed data.[3] Furthermore, due to a lack of data on the precise contribution of EU-borne e-waste to the overall e-waste exposure and to the overall exposure to pollutants, it was not possible to quantify the health impacts in China from EU-borne e-waste only.

Finally, many more quantifications can be carried out for other pollutants (and for combinations, ‘cocktails’, of pollutants), for other health impacts (e.g. cardiovascular effects), and for other groups of people (e.g. adults living in regions adjacent to informal e-waste recycling areas). Neither health impacts in the longer term have been quantified. In fact, some longer term risks may yet to develop and will need to be understood (Geeraerts, Mutafoglu, and Illes, 2015, p. 45).

  • [1] The benchmark dose approach (BMD) by definition is a dosage which is associated with aspecified change in response, the benchmark response (BMR). The benchmark dose level (BMDL)is the BMD’s lower confidence bound, and it is usually used as a reference point. For instance, fora BMR of 1 per cent, the BMDL, the benchmark dose lower confidence limit, can be interpretedas BMDL01 and indicates a dose where the response is likely to be smaller than 1 per cent. Theterm ‘likely’ is defined by the statistical confidence level, usually 95 per cent. The EFSA Paneldetermined that the reference point for the risk characterisation of lead when assessing the risk ofintellectual deficits in children measured by the full-scale IQ score is 12 pg/L (B-Pb) at the 95thpercentile lower confidence limit of the benchmark dose (BMD) of 1 per cent extra risk(BMDL01). For this BMDL of 12 pg/L (B-Pb), the corresponding dietary lead intake value fordevelopmental neurotoxicity in 6-year-old children calculated by the EFSA Panel is 0.50 pg/kg bwper day (EFSA, 2009)
  • [2] The blood levels exceeded the BMDL01 of 12 pg/L (corresponding to the 0.50 pg/kg bw perday dietary intake value) multiple times, with most blood lead levels significantly higher than100 pg/L (or 10 pg/dl) (EFSA, 2010)
  • [3] More detailed data on the number of children exposed to e-waste, on blood lead levels inchildren, and on the contribution of e-waste exposure to these blood lead levels. It remains to beseen whether these data can be generated or will become available in the near future.
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