07/12/2005, 00.00
Send to a friend

In the 'toxic city' of Guiyu, children play among the waste

The world's e-waste comes to Guiyu for recycling, but the net effect is that the city's waterways have turned dark-coloured, its air has become toxic and its people are suffering from many bone diseases and extremely high levels of lead in the blood.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – The city of Guiyu, in the southern province of Guangdong, is the centre of an environmental disaster that has spinned out of control. Here and in several nearby townships, electronic waste, most of it imported, is broken up in small workshops. It is a version of outsourcing that saves wealthier countries the high cost of disposing of their electronic trash and provides city residents with a livelihood. However, in this part of China, recycling e-waste is apparently subject to no environmental or health and safety regulation.

In small workshops and yards and in the open countryside, workers dismember the detritus of modernisation. Armed mostly with small hand tools, they take apart old computers, monitors, printers, video and DVD players, photocopying machines, telephones and phone chargers, music speakers, car batteries and microwave ovens.

Chinese law forbids the importation of electronic waste and Beijing is also a signatory to the Basle Agreement, an international treaty banning the shipment of e-waste from the developed to the developing world.

E-waste imports have been illegal in China since 1996, but the country has been so hungry for all sorts of metals that it has turned a blind eye.

Rich countries like the United States (which did not sign the Basle Agreement) can exploit the situation and get rid of materials that would otherwise have to be disposed in rigidly-regulated and costly ways.

Guangdong environmentalists say that in Guiyu alone, one million tonnes of e-waste are treated every year.

Guiyu workers—toiling without protective goggles, masks, gloves, etc.—–strip wires for the copper they contain; melt the lead solder from circuit boards; place circuit boards in open acid baths to separate precious metals, including the tiny quantities of gold and palladium they contain; and grade plastics by quality and other parts are burned to separate plastic from scrap metal.

After this thorough dismembering, any remaining combustibles are left to burn in open fires, leaving an acrid stench of plastic, rubber and paint in the air.

According to China's Computer Trade Association, some 2.3 million PCs, 2.7 million computer displays and 1.35 million printers were dumped domestically in 2002.

The environmental impact is enormous. Waterways are black and chocked with waste and local residents must pay ten times what their neighbours in the township of Chendian do.

British Greenpeace International scientist Kevin Brigden tested streams in Guiyu and found acid baths leaching into them. The streams had Ph readings of 1 or 2, that of a strong acid, and powerful enough to disintegrate a penny after a few hours, says Mr Brigden.

In the past two decades, incomes have risen sharply. Locals have become middle class moving out of their traditional single-storey homes into newly built three- and four-storey buildings where the ground floor is reserved as a scrap-sorting workshop. Now they employ migrant workers from Sichuan, Anhui, Henan and other inland provinces who make ends meet by risking their health in this toxic business.

Professor Huo Xia, of the Shantou University Medical College, an hour and a half's drive from Guiyu, tested 165 children aged between one and six at a Guiyu kindergarten for concentrations of lead in their blood.

Eighty-two per cent of the Guiyu children had blood/lead levels of more than 100.

High levels of lead in young children's blood can impact IQ and the development of the central nervous system.

The highest concentrations of lead were found in the children of parents whose workshop dealt with circuit boards and the lowest was among those who recycled plastic.

A report by the Shantou Medical University Hospital in November 2003 found a high incidence of skin damage, headaches, vertigo, nausea, chronic gastritis, and gastric and duodenal ulcers in the population.

Send to a friend
Printable version
See also
More migrants drown off Yemen’s coast
11/08/2017 20:05
Pollution: Washington helps Hanoi dispose of plastic
12/01/2022 11:23
Growing unemployment in the Philippines, also due to corruption and waste
Southeast Asia losing US$ 6 billion by not recycling plastic
25/03/2021 12:43
In 2021 Beijing will ban the import of solid waste in the name of 'ecological civilization'
04/07/2020 10:03


Subscribe to Asia News updates or change your preferences

Subscribe now
“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”