Report from Ghana’s Agbogbloshie E-Wasteland

This week, I will hand this space off to Jack Caravanos, a member of Blacksmith’s Technical Advisory Board and a leading expert in lead pollution/contamination. Jack is part of part of a project in Ghana jointly funded by Blacksmith and CUNY, in partnership with Green Advocacy Ghana, the Ghana Heath Ministry and the Ghana EPA.

I recently returned from the notorious Agbogbloshie recyclers market in Central Accra and all the reports you may have read about this place is true. Where else in the world can you find people dismantling computers, automobile engines, refrigerators and the like mixed in with a wholesale vegetable market, dozens of food vendors, a large mosque and the infamous copper wire burning site, which produces large volumes of toxic black smoke that lingers in the air all day. All this happening in what appears to be a random, chaotic structure (while there are no streets, vendor signs or directory, it is actually quite well organized and profitable to the vendors.)

The visual impacts are diverse and overwhelming: [watch video here]

- Women pounding yams and cassava into the food staple, Fu-Fu, all day long to feed workers and family.

- Boys of all ages scavenging the ashes at the “burn sites” with their hands and a small metal blade looking for iron, aluminum and copper remnants to sell.

- Young girls selling bags of water to both quench the burning metal and provide nourishment to the workers in the scorching sun and heat.

- Young men manually lifting automobile and truck engines onto wagons that carry them to the unregulated dismantlers, leaking motor oil throughout the market

- Young girls doing laundry in large pots with no central drainage.

- Hundreds of men pounding gears, computers, motors, with handmade chisels attempting to separate the valuable from the waste.

- On top of all this, add the ever-present black smoke from burning plastic. Its distinct odor mixed in with the sewage gases emanating from the Odaw River nearby.

Everywhere you look you see pieces of circuit boards, televisions, refrigerators, irons, etc. The toxic chemicals released are spread throughout the area when it rains and of course spread to the homes each evening. What especially troubled me was the path of the toxic smoke that floats right into the food market. So whatever doesn’t get into your lungs can now settle onto the food supply of Accra. Agbogbloshie is a large thriving recyclers market but has major environmental health problems.

Workers and residents know the issues, the problems, the risks, but there are no simple solutions. One thing is for sure: the market cannot and will not close.

Often science is needed to affect policy change, meaning we need data. Together with two graduate students from the City University of New York School of Public Health and tremendous support from our partners in the Ministry and Green Advocacy, I conducted two days of sampling at the site. We sampled worker’s breathing zones and ambient air for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, acid gas, heavy metals, VOCs and particulates. Lab results are pending but preliminary observations indicate serious chemical exposure to the toxic plumes associated with burning plastic covered wires to expose recyclable copper.

We spoke with workers and asked them how we can help. Stopping the burning is an obvious solution but raises other difficult problems. We are all working to identify short-term interventions and long-term solutions to this serious urban environmental health problem.

— Jack.

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4 Responses to Report from Ghana’s Agbogbloshie E-Wasteland

  1. Opoku Agyekum says:

    Thank you very much Jack, Calah, Joe and the many others who supported the project but were not physically present in Ghana.

    The Agbogbloshie pollution issue is a very big and dangerous one. The picture painted is exactly what happens with more dire consequences than enumerated by Prof Caravanos.

    The interesting situation is that the scrap yard workers that initially caused the problem are now begging for help in find simple solutions to the problems. They are now aware of the time bomb they are sitting on. One simple engineering solution will be to get them a granulator so they do not have to burn cables to get the copper which is of value to them. Such a simple installation will go a very long way to alleviate the suffering of not only the scrap yard workers but also those who live in the immediate vicinity and also all who purchase their foodstuffs from the market; which in this case is virtually everyone in Accra, Ghana.

  2. Alexander says:

    Do you have any information on the current market values for scrap in Agbogbloshie? I am looking to incorporate them into a humanitarian proposal.

  3. E. ODJAM-AKUMATEY says:

    I feel ashamed anytime i read about Agbogloshie.I think to start, there must be a clear policy on e-waste( a policy that will be implemented) concerning the importation and use use of electronics. The source of e-waste is from the developed countries who ship volumes od used or near-expiring electronics to Ghana.These consumers are told they have been tested and contain no hazardous substances.There must be the Implemetation of the Rotterdam Convention to involve the exporting countries and the Importing country.Since Ghana hasn’t got the means to check on the hazardous situations of these, the exporting countries must be held responsible for the export of these into Ghana and other developing countries. Within the country, the so-called repairers must be registered into a cooperative so that the e-waste can easily be collected to a central point where an e-cycler could handle them.On the part of those who are involved in this business, there must be an alternate source of income through skills training to discourage the trade.

  4. Pingback: E-Waste: How the New iPad Adds to Electronic Garbage | Ecocentric | TIME.com

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