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Toxic `e-waste' threatens India's technology center

PRICE OF DEVELOPMENT?Environmentalists and officials warn the unregulated disposal of discarded computers and electronic components is a timebomb

AFP , BANGALORE, INDIA

As information-technology (IT) firms continue to swamp India's technology hub of Bangalore, the city is starting to choke under a heap of e-waste generated from obsolete computers and discarded electronic components.

Environmentalists and officials say the waste contains more than 1,000 different toxic substances harmful to human beings and the environment.

"If we do not wake up now, in the next five years it will boomerang on us," said Bakul Rao, a consultant with the Environment Man-agement and Policy Research Institute, a research body set up by Karnataka state's Pollution Control Board.

The institute says that next year about 1,000 tonnes of plastics, the same equivalent of iron, 300 tonnes of lead, 0.23 tonnes of mercury and 43 tonnes of nickel and 350 tonnes of copper will be generated as e-waste in Bangalore.

"This figure will increase by 10-fold in 2020 when Bangalore will generate one-third of the state's e-waste," Rao said. "The findings are quite alarming as there are no regulations and no scientific disposal systems."

Bangalore has more than 500 recyclers of discarded computers and electronic components. They sell second-hand parts either to computer assemblers in the grey market or to buyers directly at the weekly Sunday bazaar. Most then burn the waste, mainly plastics and printed circuit boards, in illegal dump yards near residential colonies -- releasing toxic and carcinogenic substances into the air.

The recyclers, most of whom work with their bare hands, also extract precious metals using crude chemical processes.

"There is no scientific recycling happening anywhere in Bangalore. Most of the e-waste including lead and plastic is dumped along with the municipal waste and then burned," Rao said. "Bangalore has more than 100 illegal dump pits for e-waste."

The burning of printed circuit boards at a low temperature leads to the release of extremely toxic components which can cause cancer, a report by the institute said.

Barium found in e-waste, it added, could damage the heart and liver while other chemicals such as beryllium found in computer motherboards and cadmium in chip resistors and semiconductors are poisonous and could lead to cancer.

Chromium in floppy disks, lead in batteries and computer monitors, and mercury in alkaline batteries and fluorescent lamps also pose severe health risks. Other substances such as copper, silver and tin could also be damaging, the report said.

Almitra Patel, an environmentalist and a member of the Supreme Court Committee for Solid Waste Management, said unscientific recycling was a part of the problem but lack of regulations exacerbated the situation.

"At present the environmental laws do not specifically cover the e-waste regulation. Computers and mobile phones are known culprits but tubelights and children's toys are others," Patel said.

"Import of e-waste, mainly from the US, under the garb of donations is adding to our woes. They basically dump obsolete computers in India," she said.

India is a signatory of the Basel Convention On The Transboundary Movements Of Hazardous Wastes And Their Disposal which came into force in 1992 and has been ratified by 159 countries.

But the convention allows import of such waste from nations such as the US which has not ratified the treaty.

Kishore Wankhade, spokesman for the Toxic Links non-governmental organization, said India's struggle to manage e-waste was worrying.

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