Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Story of E-waste Pollution on the Erren River in Taiwan

Living in Fear

The Erren River should saunter sweetly through Tainan and Kaohsiung counties, past the city of Tainan, and into the South China Sea on its 65 km journey across southern Taiwan. However, activities along its banks have degraded this river to a foul flow of pollutants bordered by eight-foot-high walls of stripped electronic circuit boards.

The illegal recycling of electronic waste (also called e-waste), along with industrial activities, has so severely damaged the ecology of the Erren River that fish die within two minutes of being introduced into its waters. The water’s toxicity levels not only affect aquatic life, but damage human health as well. Life expectancy in the surrounding communities is 50 years, and the cancer rate is 27%.

Electronic waste recyclers and metal smelters accounted for approximately 80% of all illegal activity on the Erren. Taiwanese illegal e-waste recycling operations included ink recovery, burning of plastic-coated metals, plastics recovery, solder collection and gold extraction. All of these processes release multiple toxins at extremely high levels and are harmful to both the environment and human health.

Streams of E-Waste

E-waste Taiwan Erren RiverGold recovery was one of the foremost e-waste recycling operations on the Erren River and has particularly nasty consequences. Mixtures of 75% hydrochloric acid and 25% nitric acid are used to recover gold from computer components. After use, these acidic mixtures are dumped directly into the river and can cause the pH to drop dramatically. Testing of water and sediment samples at gold-recovery sites in China and India by Greenpeace China have revealed that lead, tin, copper, antimony, cadmium and nickel are all released from makeshift gold-recovery workshops.

The concentrations of lead, tin and copper found at these sites in China and India are over one hundred times higher than levels expected in an uncontaminated ecosystem. The toxicity of antimony is very similar to that of arsenic, and cadmium is considered hazardous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at only 1.0 mg per liter, but was found at 12.2 mg per liter at these sites. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chlorinated benzenes and beryllium are among the chemical compounds present in the waste streams from gold-recovery workshops—and all are toxic to humans and the environment.

The heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium and tin, on circuit boards pose an enormous threat to the river. A single circuit board contains and leaches enough lead to surpass the U.S. EPA’s hazardous waste standard by 30 to100 times. Both lead and cadmium are toxic to humans, plants and animals. Both are also bio-accumulative and can cause kidney damage. However, they differ in that lead affects blood circulation, the nervous system, reproduction and brain development, while cadmium inhibits calcium mechanisms, leading to bone density issues.

Citizen Activism

Professor Huan Zhang Huang and other environmental activists from Tainan Community College began monitoring the river in 1995. However, it took almost six years of diligent photo documentation of criminal activities and environmental data collection from the polluted river before the Taiwan Environmental Protection Agency took action and raided 70 illegal e-waste recycling sites in 2001.

Since 2001 the Taiwan EPA has spent NT$ 50-60 million (Taiwan Dollars) to clean up sites along the Erren. However, funding the clean-up effort has been difficult to secure, and companies that polluted the river have no legal obligation to pay for its restoration. On average, only one site is cleaned up every two years. One example of minimal effort to prevent run-off from contaminated private property into the river was when Taiwan EPA workers simply covered a remaining eight-foot-high banks of discarded circuit boards with tarps, leaving them to slowly decompose, further contaminating the river.

Community Right-To-Know

Based on the latest information from the Taiwanese government’s eleven water-monitoring stations (Feb. 15, 2007), the level of pollution in the Erren River is still rated medium to heavy. However, Taiwan’s poorly enforced right-to-know laws leaves the local community with more questions than answers. Residents along the Erren have no access to information about what specific contaminants were found in river sediments during the EPA clean-up efforts, let alone how concentrated they are. There has also been no report released to the public on exactly how much of the sediments were removed, where these sediments were dumped or how extensive the remaining contamination is.

The Taiwanese people should not have to fear for their health in their own communities. To restore human and environmental health and safety, the government needs to speed up the restoration of the Erren River and enforce existing regulations to ensure that such atrocities do not continue. Taiwanese right-to-know laws need to be enforced, and residents along the Erren River need detailed information about the contamination of the river and the risks from living so close to this toxic body of water.

To learn more contact:
Taiwan Environmental Action Network (TEAN)


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