Increased risk of thyroid cancer, negative fetal exposure outcomes possible
In today’s technology-driven world, more and more electronic waste is generated every day. In 2014, 41.8 million tons of e-waste originated from products such as televisions, computers, monitors and cellphones. While environmental activists might be sounding the alarm on the problems associated with increased waste, one topic that is often overlooked is the health of workers who are processing e-waste at recycling facilities around the world.
“We are moving towards more of a circular economy where there is more responsibility for products and the recycling and reuse industry is going to grow,” said Victoria Arrandale, assistant professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. “Health and safety professionals need to be aware of the industry and working to build health and safety capacity in this industry because it is still emerging and there is a need for more education and more awareness of the hazards.”
Arrandale and her colleagues recently tackled this issue by studying workers and their working conditions at an e-waste dismantling facility in Ontario. They found these workers are exposed to flame retardant (FR) chemicals that have been used in plastic casings of electronics, motherboards, transistors, capacitors and battery casings to comply with flammability standards.
Workers at this Canadian facility were exposed to higher levels of some types of FR-containing dust than those in informal facilities in countries such as China and Thailand. In one instance, dust ingestion levels of certain FRs was approximately 10 times higher than an e-waste facility in China, found “Exposure of Canadian Electronic Waste Dismantlers to Flame Retardants,” published in Environmental International. At the Ontario facility being studied, researchers observed inconsistent use of personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks, and they were not aware of any operating emission abatement equipment.
Workers are exposed to the FR dust mainly during product dismantling as well as when the products undergo grinding, shredding, compaction and further processing.
Many negative health effects have been associated with exposure to FRs.
“It’s been studied in the general population and these studies suggest linkages with things like thyroid problems, and there are some suggestions that there is an impact on infant or children’s development when the mother had been exposed,” said Arrandale.
In their research, Arrandale and colleagues came across studies that found the following adverse effects from fetal or early life exposure to FRs: reduced IQ and externalizing behaviour problems; abnormal migration of testes; and alterations in timing of puberty. Other studies found a risk of breast cancer, poor in vitro fertilization outcomes, reduced semen quality and papillary thyroid cancer for adult exposure.
Arrandale points to the fact that health effects of workplace exposure (rather than general population exposure) to FRs is not yet well known. While work is being done to learn more, she suggests that health and safety professionals should continue to dig into their usual toolkit for exposure reduction, such as following the hierarchy of controls. However, she notes that elimination and substitution are really not possible since they are in the product that is arriving in these facilities.
“The workplace does not have control over the contents of the material, but it does have control over engineering controls and improving ventilation and isolating tasks that may generate exposure — things like shredding or bailing of waste— and they also have control over administrative controls — improving housekeeping, educating workers about the risk, improving hand hygiene to ensure that exposures are not taken into the lunchroom or taken home with people,” Arrandale said.
The researchers noted there are few occupational exposure limits (OEL) in Canada to protect e-waste workers from FRs. They identified only one OEL for an FR, triphenyl phosphate (TPhP), which is set at 3 mg/m
While fairly recent regulations limit the use of FRs in new products — such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) — workers at e-waste facilities are largely handling old electronics as it takes decades for these products to leave the use phase.
The researchers also note that occupational health and safety legislation considers exposure on a chemical-by-chemical basis, “potentially overlooking the effects of exposure to complex mixtures of FRs and other toxic compounds, such as metals.”
The University of Toronto researchers end their paper with the final thought that although “smart” appliances, vehicles and cities are being touted for their potential to reduce environmental impacts, the consequences of handling the e-waste that they generate should be included in these conversations.