Recyclers at risk? Analysis of E-waste and blood lead Levels at Ghana’s recycling hub, Agbogbloshie

Rapid urbanization coupled with lack of adequate infrastructural services and job opportunities has brought in new socio-economic and environmental problems in the developing world. One such issue that requires urgent attention is the mounting e-waste stockpiles and attendant informal recycling operations, which has grown from being a concern for regional and local governments to an issue of national importance in Ghana (Amankwaa 2013). Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, has become a major site for the intersection of various dynamics. While the site remains one of the top digital accumulation sites in the world, it also retains notoriety in political and social media circles. However, the site also provides employment opportunities to recyclers, refurbishers, dismantlers, scrap dealers, and scavengers—and contributes to the recycling of the e-waste from around the world (Grant & Oteng-Ababio 2012).

Surprisingly, little systematic research has been done on Agbogbloshie. This is particularly true for research to empirically ascertain how e-waste livelihood strategies affect workers’ health or how this work is integrated into the city’s wider economy. This situation limits the effectiveness of any pending policy surrounding the operations at the site. Our project aims at bridging this gap by providing both the empirics and epistemologies necessary to design and sustain policy that insures human safety and environmental integrity. By acknowledging the on-going debates in political ecology (Pickren 2014), critical urban geography (Grant & Oteng-Ababio 2012), and radical political economy (Moore 2012) regarding e-waste, including the material and environmental cost associated with uncontrolled dumping and the transnational conduits of e-waste, our project further complicates these debates by theorizing the social and human dimensions. This we believe will enhance understanding of the extremely dynamic e-waste economy necessary for differentiated political actions.

This project is driven by three primary questions:

1. What are the key livelihood activities for workers within Agbogbloshie and what changes would the e-waste workers themselves desire?

Through partnership with the Agbogbloshie Scrap Dealers Association (ASDA), the project will explore asset mapping of the site to better understand the local e-waste recycling market and practices. This approach has community members themselves—in this case the e-waste workers – use up-to-date Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to construct digital maps of their own environment, define and identify assets, as well as constraints.

By mapping Agbogbloshie’s production, and relative throughput of waste and assets recovered, our project hopes to identify potential areas of employment expansion and pay equity. This project will pay special attention to the interconnections between the informal e-waste economy and Accra’s wider formal markets; encouraging policy makers to see the site as value addition for the city that requires employment oversight and not total closure. Thus, our project seeks to identify a middle ground in which informal e-waste recycling is intersected with pragmatic political intervention(s).

2. To what extent is e-waste recycling a matter of concern for workers’ blood lead levels (BLLs)?

This question seeks to factually foreground the health costs to e-waste workers. Aid organizations and media outlets in the area express concern for the negative health impacts of e-waste workers, albeit with little empirical rigor. Meanwhile, lead contained in e-waste is recognized to be a highly potent neurotoxin, primarily through inhalation of contaminated fumes and dusts or ingestion, which can build up in the body and have irreversible effects on the nervous system (Brigden et al., 2005). It can cause damage to the kidney and bone structure through long-term exposure, leading to high rates of miscarriage, birth defects and cancer clusters among workers (Akesson et al., 2005).

Consequently, studying e-waste workers’ lead levels and subsequent health effects have become important and, increasingly, BLL analysis is often used to establish this relationship (see Zheng et al., 2008; Liu et al., 2011). Thus, considering the potential lead exposure at the site, this project intends to illuminate through BLL analysis the actual impact that e-waste imposes on workers. This process involves analyzing the lead levels in the blood of sampled volunteers in the e-waste chain of activities and some non e-waste workers as a control group. To ensure international significance, the US Centers for Disease Control (US CDC) standards will be used for comparison. By establishing the BLL, this study will provide a baseline that can inform policy considerations by the city authorities and also provide empirical basis for future studies.

3. And if e-waste recycling is found to have adverse effects on BLL, what innovative solutions are available that have a high potential for success as Agbogbloshie currently exists?

E-waste recycling is an activity found the world over. But the technologies used for refurbishing or recovery vary widely likewise workers’ safety. The project intends to identify best practices from around the world that can be applied to Agbogbloshie – keeping in mind the capital and enforcement limitation of the area as well as their local knowledge and ingenuity. Potential solutions may come from public sector oversight, foreign investment, NGO-backed projects, or labor organization. Most likely, the lasting solutions will come from a mixture of these sources. Rigorous mapping through participatory community engagement, and environmental equity measurement are useful starting points in a substantially multi-faceted process not only for the local people but also by the people to build their capacity to control their future.

The study results have potential relevance for two key stakeholders; the ASDA association and policy makers. The association will better appreciate their contribution to Accra’s economy which is likely to encourage environmentally-friendly recycling practices. To the Ministries of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), and Local Government and Rural Development (MLGRD), it will provide guidelines which will be invaluable to the draft e-waste management bill at cabinet level and any meaningful future policy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will benefit by fashioning out how e-waste trade and recycling can be regulated to promote environment and resources recovery management. Finally, the Ministry of Health (MoH) will be provided with baseline data on workers BLLs and tailored strategies that can be adopted to minimize the health impacts. In sum, the local authority’s role in this direction is paramount, including for example, familiarizing community members with best practices elsewhere, and fostering links that will facilitate the growth of regional, national, and even international networks.