a manufactured global health crisis: electronic waste in ghana
Gabriella Meltzer, a senior studying Health and Societies, received a CURF Undergraduate Climate Action Grant to travel to Accra, Ghana to study ace-waste.
From Reading, Pennsylvania to Accra, Ghana
“My research project found me,” reflected Meltzer. “I originally became interested in e-waste during my sophomore year when I was taking an ABCS class and BFS seminar with Richard Pepino, [a lecturer in Earth and Environmental Science], called Community-Based Environmental Health.” In the class, Meltzer studied how lead poisoning perpetuated cyclical poverty in Reading, Pennsylvania and developed policy recommendations to mitigate health risks. “I became interested in social circumstances (e.g. gender, socioeconomic status, where you live, etc.) and how they interact to determine your health outcomes. I went up to Prof. Pepino after class to see how I could learn more and he told me to Google ‘electronic waste’ in China.” Meltzer found it impossible to get the photos of mounds of discarded electronic equipment clogging the streets out of her head. Although Gabriella initially wanted to study in China, she chose to travel to Ghana for fieldwork because she could communicate with the locals in English, which would allow her to conduct ethnographic research based on qualitative experiences.
Meltzer said, “My advice for anyone getting involved in research would be to find something that sticks - that makes you curious, upsets you, inspires you – something that triggers an emotion!”
E-waste as a public health disaster
“My project took both a historical and contemporary approach,” explained Meltzer. From the historical perspective, she came to realize that Ghana, as a post-colonial state, had a very weak government, which was unable to implement effective environmental policies. From the contemporary side, she studied the dynamics of the Basel Convention, which are the bylaws that govern the international transport of waste.
In Ghana, the northern regions are very agricultural and tribal. Unequal distribution of natural resources and food insecurity are causing southward migration to more lucrative coastal regions like Accra. “People in Accra are taking on illegal jobs in electronic waste recycling because people need to sustain themselves and are not given alternative sources of employment from the government,” explained Meltzer. E-waste in slums leads to chronic health problems and infectious diseases, as workers receive constant exposure to lead, mercury, and cadmium. In the US and Ghana, Meltzer spoke with many stakeholders, including the Accra Metropolitan Assembly Department of Waste Management, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Public Health to discover the economic and political barriers to addressing e-waste and realized the necessity of global co-operation.
Plan for continued engagement
“Ever since doing this project, I’ve become really interested in sustainability, the effects of climate change, and how this intersects with health…. Whenever people are telling me that they have a broken computer or cell phone, I now tell them where to throw it out. So much of our waste is illegally exported to developing countries. I always tell people to find a responsible electronic recycler,” said Meltzer, who recommends getting involved in the Electronic Takeback Coalition, Basel Action Network, and Greenpeace.
Meltzer plans to make her thesis findings accessible to the people she met in Ghana. “There’s something to be said about social justice research. It’s not a sexy topic, but we are very much responsible for [e-waste accumulation]. I want to keep being an advocate for environmental action.”