China's family-run cottage industry for recycling e-waste is releasing dangerous amounts of toxic pollutants and posing a threat to local health, according to a team of scientists from the US and China.
Sales of consumer electronics, particularly mobile phones and computers, have soared in the past two decades - with one billion of the former sold in 2007.
Although Europe and the US have set up e-waste recycling systems much of the e-waste ends up being illegally exported to less industrialised countries where the laws to protect workers and the environment are inadaquate or not enforced.
China in particular is expected to see seven-fold increase in mobile phone waste and four-fold increase in old computer waste by 2020.
Researchers from the US and China studied the e-waste cottage industry that has sprung up in Shantou City, a town of 150,000 people in China's Guangdong Province - the main destination for electronic waste.
Previous studies have focused on toxic metals being released, however this study highlights the air pollutants being emitted into the surrounding air. It says the family-run workshops have no capability to control or reduce pollutant emissions.
The majority of the electronic components are removed by heating the boards over a grill on a strove burner, a process known as 'roasting', before removing the reusable parts. This heating process releases numerous chemicals, heavy metals and other pollutants into the air.
Study co-author Bernd Simoneit from Oregon State university said the pollutants were damaging not only to the environment but also the health of workers and people living in the area.
'Some of these chemical compounds may be carcinogens; others may be just as harmful because they can act as "environmental disruptors" and may affect body processes from reproduction to endocrine function,' he said.
Greenpeace say the groundwater around the nearby town of Guyiu, in the same province as the study town, is undrinkable because of toxic e-waste being dumped in streams and fields.
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