Electronic waste fears mount

Buri Ram: The boom in the electronic waste recycling business in the Northeast region is having far-reaching consequences on people's health and the environment, the Pollution Control Department says.

After finding hazardous levels of lead and arsenic in the Northeast, department officials yesterday visited Khong Chai Phatthana district’s tambon Kok Sa-art in Kalasin and Ban Mai Chai Pot district’s tambon Daeng Yai in Buri Ram, two of the main business areas in the Northeast.

“People don’t care about the long-term effects. If there are no preventive measures, the areas will turn into heavy metal-contaminated zones. Local administration organisations should play a key role in controlling the situation,” said Wichien Jungrungroeng, the department’s chief.

According to the department’s latest survey, in Kok Sa-art, there are 2,636 microgrammes per kilogramme of lead (versus a standard level of 400) and 9.6 microgrammes per kilogramme (against a standard level of 3.9) in the soil.

Many locals do not realise that toxic substances from burning waste and direct contact with used appliances can harm their health. Those who realise the danger simply do not care because they make a lot of money out of the business, Mr Wichien said.

“Someone told me there’s gold inside the flexible circuit boards [of a mobile phone]. Although I have never found gold in them, I’ve made a lot of money out of it [electronic waste recycling],” said a shop owner who only wanted to be identified as Noei.

Noei is among 283 families in Kok Sa-ard involved in the electronic waste recycling business. They buy used electronic equipment such as televisions, refrigerators, computers and mobile phones, and disassemble them to find flexible circuit boards and metal.

It is estimated that about 767 tonnes of electronic waste end up in the district in Kalasin every month.

Electronic waste such as plastic, foam from refrigerators, rubber and TV screens has no place to go except the community’s waste dump site that is now full of it.

Villagers burn electrical appliances on their farmland or at the dump site, located near the community. The toxic substances can be washed into their paddy fields and later contaminate the rice.

Mr Wichien said the high levels of toxic substances found resulted from the burning of electronic appliances that is dangerous for the environment. He said long-term exposure to such toxic substances could lead to cancer.

He said the department cannot deal directly with the cases because the local tambon administration organisation (TAO) is responsible for taking legal action.

However, Mr Wichien admitted most TAO officials do not take such legal action for fear it will hurt their political base.

Currently, the department is drafting a bill on electronic waste management, which will levy an additional fee on buyers of electronic equipment so there are proper means of disposing of electronic waste. The bill is now in the public hearings process.

Public Health Ministry officials have also expressed concern over the improper management of electronic waste, citing a rise in the number of people suffering from respiratory illnesses caused by smoke from the burning of such waste.

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