People living near an electronic waste recycling site in China face a higher risk of lung cancer than people living near other urban industries, according to a new study.
Researchers collected air samples from rooftops in two different parts of China: One in a rural village less than a mile from an e-waste burning operation with no other industry nearby; and one in the city of Guangzhou, where there aren't any e-waste burning sites but there are a lot of other polluting industries.
They focused on the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in the air on both rooftops. Many PAHs are known to cause lung cancer when inhaled, and they're released in the primitive process of burning e-waste – cell phones, computers and TVs – to recover precious metals such as silver, gold, palladium and copper.
After collecting and analyzing air samples over the course of a year, researchers concluded that people living in the e-waste village are 1.6 times more likely to develop lung cancer than the urban residents based on the levels of PAHs in the air.
The study puts a fine point on the health consequences of illegal e-waste recycling operations. Despite state laws and stewardship programs that attempt to recycle old cell phones and computers responsibly, a lot of e-waste still goes overseas and ends up getting burned for the metals it contains.
Staci Simonich, a co-author of the study and a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University, said a significant portion of the e-waste that's burned in China is likely coming from North America. The result is toxic for the people doing the work and living nearby.
“In the village, people were recycling waste in their yards and homes, using utensils and pots to melt down circuit boards and reclaim metals,” said Simonich. "There was likely exposure through breathing, skin and food – including an intimate connection between e-waste and the growing of vegetables, raising of chickens and catching of fish."
The study also found that the level of carcinogenic PAHs in the air exceeded China's air quality standards 98 percent of the time in the e-waste area and 93 percent of the time in the city. Other studies have focused on the presence of other toxics released by burning electronic waste, said Simonich, but this study is among the first to focus specifically on PAHs.
She said burning e-waste is an illegal activity in China, but it happens anyway.
"It's difficult for the Chinese government to balance people wanting to make money doing that activity and the potential harm to human health," Simonich said. "Many countries are struggling with that."