Dumped computers litter Third World, study says
Monday, February 25, 2002  Globe and Mail, Print Edition, Page A12

SAN JOSE, CALIF. -- What happened to that old computer after you sold it to a secondhand-parts dealer?

Environmental groups say the chances are good it ended up in a Third World dump, one where thousands of labourers burn, smash and pick apart electronic waste to scavenge for the precious metals inside, unwittingly exposing themselves and their surroundings to innumerable toxic hazards.

A report being released today documents one such "cyberage nightmare": a cluster of villages in southeastern China where computers still bearing the labels of their former owners are ripped apart and discarded in rivers and fields.

The authors of the report, which is called Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, hope their findings will put pressure on Western companies and lawmakers to increase domestic recycling efforts.

Investigators who visited the waste sites in Guiyu, China, in December saw men, women and children pulling wires from computers and burning them, fouling the air with carcinogenic smoke.

Other labourers, making $2.50 a day and working with little or no protection, burned plastics and circuit boards and poured acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold. Some smashed lead-impregnated cathode-ray tubes from computer monitors, the report says.

The ground water is so polluted that drinking water has to be trucked in, the authors write. Samples from one river in the area had 190 times the pollution levels allowed under World Health Organization guidelines.

A 1989 treaty known as the Basel Convention restricts exports of such hazardous materials, but neither Ottawa nor Washington has ratified it.

The report says some in the industry estimate that as much as 50 to 80 per cent of electronic waste collected in the United States in the name of recycling is actually shipped out of the country.