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06.10.2008 Technology

Dumping old computers in Ghana - Part II

Dumping old computers in Ghana - Part II

We negotiate a swampy puddle, empty computer cases placed as stepping stones, as the rank water emits oily, burnt-plastic fumes. 'I can't run any more,' says Schoolboy.
'My lungs hurt when I do. I have a headache and I feel sick and I can never sleep. At night my heart beats so hard it feels like it's going to fall off. But even if I'm sick I have to work, otherwise I don't eat. I hate it here.'

Who is exporting this toxic junk and causing the misery? We find a clump of old monitors on the edge of one of the squalid slums that ring the dump site and are shocked by what we see. Stamped clearly on the monitors in blue lettering is the name of the previous owner: Thames Gateway NHS Trust.

Worse still, confidential information about British patients is turning up on these old computers. A few days later, we bought a computer containing medical information alongside 5,000 names and addresses of patients in England. The computer was just one of a stack of old NHS machines, clearly marked with the names of the various NHS trusts to which they once belonged.

One of the computers we bought for £75 showed the prescriptions issued to patients by a pharmacy in Leeds, West Yorkshire: Viagra, disulphuram for alcohol dependence, the anti-psychotic drug quetiapine and midazolam for anxiety and insomnia. It also revealed the patient's date of birth and personal information. 'This information can be used for all sorts of terrible things: extortion, blackmail, breaking into bank accounts,' says Jim Puckett, head of the Basel Action Network, which campaigns to get the e-waste trade stopped. 'It's dangerous.'

The desperate situation here is part of a pattern all over the globe - First World nations dump their electronic rubbish on developing countries, poisoning communities, polluting water sources and causing birth defects, mental retardation and, ultimately, death.

This is happening in India, Pakistan, China and other parts of Africa. There is a spiteful cynicism to the trade in Ghana, where once Europeans rapaciously stripped the continent of slaves, gold and salt. Today, the ships bring cargo in rather than out, dumping toxic waste where once they plundered.

My guide, Mike Anane, is founder of Ghana's League Of Environmental Journalists. We examine the NHS monitors. 'It's scandalous,' he says. 'The British NHS's job is to save lives, and here it is killing children in Africa. '

It is a huge part of the problem at these hazardous waste sites. And here we are talking about computers that come from British doctors who have taken the Hippocratic Oath to save lives.'

Crouched around small piles of old electronics, boys in filthy trousers take crude home-made hammers to monitors and computer cases. When the screens break open there's a dull 'whump' followed by the sound of tinkling glass.
Schoolboy says he has seen boys lose fingers and others go blind. None can afford a trip to the hospital, let alone tetanus injections or even antibiotic cream.
All over this desolate wasteland, between the mounds of old computers, the boys tend fires that spew acrid black smoke.
We walk to a fire where a huddled group of boys are sullenly stoking a metal pan that splutters with a molten metal.
Streaming black smoke roars from the fire and drifts over to the slums where Schoolboy lives. 'It's lead,' the boys tell us, dead-eyed.
They're feeding the fire with shattered cathode ray tubes. The average computer monitor contains about 5Ð7lb of lead. Another fire is fed with tangled, spaghetti-like clumps of wires; they're burning the plastic-encased copper to get at the precious metal. This releases a carcinogenic cloud of toxins.
'The very worst thing that can be done with toxic waste is to burn it in uncontrolled conditions,' Jim Puckett tells me later.
Puckett's life has been threatened several times in Nigeria and China, where he has filmed the human cost of this trade.
'Combustion releases toxic metals - lead, beryllium, cadmium, mercury - into the atmosphere. Likewise, burning creates some of the most carcinogenic and toxic substances known, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans.
Just the lead alone released by such burning will have a devastating impact on the development of children and their central nervous systems. We can expect more infant mortality, birth defects and brain dysfunction within just a few years, particularly among those living near the dumps and working in this nightmarish recycling business.'
Burning lead is extremely hazardous. Scientific studies have shown that those exposed to lead poisoning are more likely to be aggressive and impulsive.

In fact, US economist Rick Nevin believes high violent-crime statistics can be directly traced to lead. He has researched this link in nine countries. 'It's stunning how strong the association is,' he has claimed.

'Sixty-five to 90 per cent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.' It's one explanation for why fights break out with such regularity here at the dump.
In the dead of night, lorries arrive at Agbogbloshie, often with their headlights off.
They dump cracked and broken old computers and TVs. We're told it's much too dangerous to visit the dump at night to witness this.
'After dark you are playing with your life,' says Mike.
'There are seriously tough and dangerous people involved in this.'
At 6am in the grey light of dawn, and sometimes earlier, gaggles of boys acting like vultures swarm over the circuit boards and cracked monitors from the previous night's illegal dumping. The crazed scramble for anything of value begins.
From the age of four, these young boys scavenge metal for muscular men in their early twenties. They are Fagin-type characters. 'They beat us when they think we have stolen their copper,' says Israel, a filthy 14-year-old.
As I photograph a pile of old, yellowing monitors, several men start shouting, eyes blazing with indignation.
One, in wraparound shades and a football shirt, is clearly the leader. 'You! White man! Get away from those.' After some placatory words that ease the hostility, we discover that he calls himself Sharp Dollar.
He runs a fleet of seven carts made from old car wheels and rusty metal, which the boys in his employ use to haul out junk. Around here that's like having a fleet of Mercedes. 'Business is good,' he says, allowing himself a grin.
According to some reports, it's possible to extract more gold from a ton of electronic circuitry than from 17 tons of gold ore.
Like other dealers, Sharp Dollar has an old-fashioned red scale next to a rusty container.
He pays the boys two Ghanaian cedis - just under £1 - for 1lb of copper.
For Schoolboy that could be several days' work and countless monitors to crack open. Later, Sharp Dollar sells each pound of copper for 25 cedis, around £11.
A shadowy group of buyers from all over the world descends upon the site to exploit this ultra-cheap labour. All the boys know the person known as the Chinaman who comes round demanding sackloads of circuit boards.

Later in the day I meet Suresh, from Delhi, India. Despite his expensive trainers and stylish T-shirt, he looks like an 18th-century slavemaster as he stands on top of an old freezer, directing the ragged boys with curt commands. They are covered in soot and sweat, loading his truck with the scrap. It's slavery by any other name.
But Suresh isn't concerned about human rights. 'We have to watch them,' he says, irritably. 'Other boys come and steal the things we're trying to load onto the lorry.'
He says the scrap metal is bound for Dubai, where he can get a high price for it, although he won't admit how much. 'We come here ten times a week,' he says, with a wolfish chuckle. 'Recycling is good business!'

You will probably use your computer for about three or four years - more if you really don't mind using an outdated machine. After that it's likely it'll join the 6.6 million tons of e-waste that's unaccounted for every year in the EU alone.

by Jonathan Green

to be continued