Who doesn't have a mobile, tablet and even an electric car? Who doesn't complain when your electronic devices start to charge worse and decrease the durability of your batteries? How long do we change our electronic devices?
But who knows how and where the materials needed to make these batteries come from? Who knows what about the devices we throw away?
The electronic devices we all have are a complex mix of hundreds of materials. Among these are heavy metals such as lead, mercury or cadmium.
To get an idea, a cell phone has between 500 and 1000 different compounds. In addition, be aware that obtaining these materials endangers the health of the workers who extract the metals in the mines and manufacture the products. And at the end of their life, if these materials are not treated properly, the hazardous substances they contain can contaminate the environment and affect people's health.
The vicious circle of electronic devices
Most of the metals needed to produce electronic devices are mined in mines in developing countries like Africa. Once obtained, they are purchased by large Asian companies to produce components for electronic devices.
Finally, the smartphones, tablets and electric cars produced will be sold around the world. Although most consumers will live in developed countries, such as those in North America and Europe.
But that's not all. When our electronic devices are already obsolete and their batteries do not last long enough, the heavy metal journey that began in African mines ends with our electronic waste returning to the African continent.
Rich countries will pay poor countries to take care of their waste, which is an important part of their economy. But this poses a major environmental problem, because recycling in these areas is not sufficiently developed.
The case of the landfill in Ghana
For example, in Ghana, a West African country, it is one of the largest electronic waste dumps in the world and mainly receives European electronic waste. In this landfill, technological waste accumulates to be subsequently burned.
This waste can begin to decompose, producing gases that go into the atmosphere and liquids that enter the earth. Its combustion will also emit dangerous gases which pass into the atmosphere. Previous studies have already shown that Ghana's electronic waste landfill causes significant heavy metal pollution of the soil and the atmosphere.
However, local people are unaware of the environmental problems that this electronic waste produces, breathing in these gases and consuming the natural resources of the surroundings. There is no prior health control.
Electronic scrap metal dump from Europe and North America in the Agbogbloshie district of Accra (Ghana). Shutterstock / Aline Tong
Pollution returns to Europe
The return of European electronic waste to African countries closes a circle which is a clear example of current global politics: the first world extracts what it needs and gives back what it no longer wants.
The enormous environmental cost of the metals needed to meet the growing need for electrical and electronic devices in developed countries is paid by the countries producing and receiving waste in Africa. Meanwhile, European states are benefiting from new devices and carbon-free green transportation thanks to electric cars carrying African minerals in their batteries.
But this circle may not be perfect and this pollution is reaching European citizens. Seafood could be a possible vector of heavy metal pollution between Africa and Europe. Heavy metals produced in mining areas and in electronic waste landfills reach coastal waters through rivers and streams and accumulate in marine sediments. From there they will enter the food chain through the plankton. Then, they will move on to the fish that consume this plankton and finally find their way into the organisms of large predators. The accumulation of these polluting metals will depend on the species, according to their trophic level, their life history and their feeding habits.
The circle of electronic pollutants. FAO / Modified from Garcia-Vazquez et al., 2021
Tuna with a high content of heavy metals
Tuna is the perfect example of a highly predatory fish that accumulates heavy metals. This fish is not recommended for children and pregnant women due to the high mercury content it can present. The presence of metals in these fish depends on the species, sex and the area in which it grows. Fish caught in African waters enter world trade and can be sold anywhere, appearing on the European market. The European Union's sustainable fishing partnership agreements allow Union vessels to catch tuna as it migrates along African waters.
Therefore, if African heavy metal pollution reaches tuna in the high seas through the various river channels and food chain, Europe could come into contact with heavy metal pollution through the ingestion of marine species caught in African waters.
There are 12 partnership agreements in the framework of sustainable fisheries between the EU and the countries of the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific and India.
What would we do if we analyzed tuna from different fishing areas and traded in Spain? The metals extracted in African mines, present in electronic waste, would they be concentrated in tuna from African waters?
The answer is yes. The results of a recently published study show higher concentrations of all metals analyzed in tuna caught in African waters, including mercury and lead.
In addition, the metal concentrations in tuna are related to the concentrations found in the waters where they were caught, showing that the fish incorporate the metals present in the environment in which they live.
What can we do?
Now that we know that the ocean gives us back everything we send it, and that it can be harmful to our health, what can we do?
Here are some examples of courses of action:
- Investigate in depth how metal pollution from rivers and land passes to the sea.
- Investigate in depth how these metals accumulate in the marine food chain.
- Investigate the risk of heavy metal ingestion through the consumption of seafood contaminated with metals from mining and electronic waste.
- Educate in responsible consumption of electronic devices, by making known the origin and treatment of derived waste.
- Work to improve the treatment of electronic waste in producing and importing countries.
Source: Alba Ardura Gutiérrez - Postdoctoral researcher in the field of genetics, University of Oviedo.
Madame Gutiérrez's scientific production (65 SCI articles, index H = 22, 1163 citations since 2016) can be found in http://scholar.google.com/citations?user=Bmw9LxwAAAAJ&hl=en . You can find one of my works on my youtube channel (still in the creation phase - http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLJa4iA3_3wrubx2KtdXWbA ) as well as on the website of my research group ARENA of the University of Oviedo http://arena.grupos.uniovi.es/inicio ).