Toxic waste poses environmental threat

VietNamNet Bridge – A huge amount of discarded electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste), particularly refrigerators, computers and mobile phones, is said to pose an alarming threat to the environment throughout Viet Nam.

A man dismantles an old computer for recyclable accessories in the northern province of Bac Ninh's Yen Phong District. Electronic waste poses an environmental threat to the country. (Photo: VNS)
"The quantity of e-waste is rapidly increasing. It is a real social concern because it can harm the local environment and people's health if not properly treated and then disposed of," said Tran Quang Hung, General Secretary of the Viet Nam Electronic Industries Association.

Hung said 10 years ago, people had their old computers or television sets repaired, but the trend had changed. "Higher living standards, the decreasing cost of replacing appliances, and the speed with which technology goes outdated, have resulted in more and more devices ending up on the scrap-heap," he said.

"The harzards posed by e-waste lies in their high toxic content, including six internationally-prohibited substances including lead, mercury, cadmium, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) which affects the human nervous system, brain and other organs."

By 2020, Viet Nam is expected to throw away six times more e-junk than in 2010, according to a report on the Development of E-waste Inventory in Viet Nam. The report, released in 2007 and jointly conducted by the Urban Environment and Industry Joint Stock Co (URENCO) and the Japanese International Co-operation Agency, is the only study on the problem made so far in Viet Nam.

The report estimated that more than 742,000 televisions, 217,000 computers and 2.8 million mobile phones were discarded this year alone. The number of television sets and computers has increased twice since 2006, while the number of mobile phones has risen nearly six times.

"These high-technology goods not only are bulky, they often contain toxic materials such as lead and mercury," said Doan Van Huong from the Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry at the Ha Noi National University's College of Natural Sciences. "They are unharmful when used as domestic and office appliances. However, when thrown away, they can cause pollution and health hazards."

Huong and his colleagues started studying e-waste in 2006 when Viet Nam witnessed the mass change-over from old to new electrical and electronic equipment. At that time, information on e-waste in Viet Nam was scarce, he said.

The law on Environmental Protection took effect in 2005, with one chapter regulating general hazardous waste. "It is alarming that the majority of discarded e-waste is being collected and dismantled manually by scrap collectors. They do not wear chemical protection suits and masks," Huong said.

"Basically, people are going round collecting PCs, printers and fridges, and taking them home into their backyards. They earn money by dismantling the products, salvaging parts, and removing precious metals.

"The workers, with little or no protection against hazardous materials, heat or burn plastic and circuit boards - or pour acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold. This fills the air with carcinogenic smoke and pollutes the water."

Huong's team carried out studies in key economic zones in the north, including the cities of Ha Noi and Hai Phong, and provinces of Hung Yen, Quang Ninh and Bac Ninh. Early this year, the team released results of a chemical analysis of metals flowing into soil at e-waste recycling places in Trieu Khuc Village, Ha Noi's Thanh Tri District. Results showed that the soil around landfills of e-waste had been contaminated by many types of metals.

For instance, the content of cadmium was between 0.9-1.3mg per kilo of soil under storage dumps. This increased to 3-4.4mg per kilo of soil in landfills.

According to Hung from the Electronic Industries Association, of 100 second-hand computers imported for their spare parts, 30 or 40 were re-usable. "It is worrying that many enterprises seek only one tiny component and discard the rest, but there haven't been any sanctions against this," said Hung.

At the third national conference on environment last month, Lt Gen Pham Quy Ngo, deputy minister of Public Security, warned that the illegal import of waste under the cover of production materials would eventually turn the country into an industrial landfill. "Some enterprises get in touch with audit agencies to certify that their cargo meet environment standards."

The 2005 Environmental Protection Law prohibits the import and transit of all kinds of waste from outsides, but importers make the most of loopholes in the law by relabelling e-waste as second-hand goods for recycling.

VietNamNet/Viet Nam News