Dr. Ogunseitan, a global leader in addressing the health and environmental justice challenges of electronic waste, is visiting Stanford during the 22-23 year to collaborate and connect with global and planetary health leaders and students.
Interview by Jamie Hansen, CIGH Communications Manager
In 2021, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world faces a mounting “tsunami of e-waste” from discarded cell phones, computers, medical devices, and other electronics. This waste contains toxic chemicals that jeopardize the environment and the health of the people who work to recycle them, scavenge them, or live near disposal sites— including millions of women and children.
And yet, this monumental global health challenge easily goes unnoticed in wealthy countries and communities that are far from where most of this waste is processed. Perhaps nobody has done more to advance public understanding of the health and environmental impacts of e-waste than Dr. Oladele Ogunseitan, who is joining the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health as a visiting scholar for the 2022-23 year.
Ogunseitan holds the University of California Presidential Chair at Irvine, where he is also Professor and served as Founding Chair of the Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention for a dozen years. He researches the intersection of industrial development and environmental quality to discover solutions to problems at the root of population burden of disease and disability — in particular, the growing problem of e-waste.
We spoke with Ogunseitan about the health and environmental challenges of electronic waste, including that generated by the healthcare industry, and his enthusiasm to collaborate with Stanford students and faculty.
What particular health risks do electronics and e-waste pose, and who is most at risk?
In general, we go to great lengths to regulate electronics like phones, as well as medical tools and equipment, to ensure that they do not pose a risk while being used.
But when we think about the full lifecycle of a phone, computer, or battery, there are people at the beginning and the end of that cycle who face all the risks with toxic chemicals in a largely unregulated environment — from the people mining materials for new devices to those recovering gold, copper, and other materials from discarded devices.
For instance, we know that lead is very damaging to childhood development. While we’ve tried to take it out of many products, it’s still in some electronics, including car batteries and some medical devices. Several studies have shown lead poisoning in children in the communities where electronics are being made and recycled – for example in Ghana and China.
My research has also found evidence that exposure to e-waste is associated with negative outcomes to pregnant women and their babies.
What is the scale of this problem?
The WHO estimates that 12 million women and 18 million children are exposed to toxic chemicals through their work with e-waste, and I believe this is an underestimate. We can no longer afford to pretend that this is not part of the problem, because in many ways these activities not only endanger the health of scavengers and recyclers; they also poison and pollute the environment. We don’t escape because the pollution is somewhere else. Ultimately, ours is a single planet and all these materials cycle around.
How can we address these health and environmental risks?
I don’t subscribe to the position that we should ban all resale and exportation of e-waste. Millions of people are employed in this industry, and to simply take away this form of labor could create unemployment, chaos, and crime. From an environmental justice perspective, we have to be careful that we don’t create solutions that may be even more problematic for the population. I have argued for making the job safer through proper personal protective equipment and tools. This should be the responsibility of the corporations that make these products.
In my lab, I use a grinder to take apart electronics to understand what’s inside them. When I test these chemicals, I’m fully protected with masks and gloves. But when you look at places around the world where this work is happening, like Brazil, China, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, they do not offer even these relatively cheap forms of protection.
So we need to encourage companies to provide this protective equipment as well as protect the environment, for instance by using scrubbers when products are burned. If everyone involved in the chain of refurbished products contributed a small amount of their profits to purchasing such equipment, it could help protect these communities and the environment. It sounds ambitious, but it’s not as if there’s no money to do it — these companies are also the most profitable companies in the world. We have to develop a pilot program where it works well and then replicate that elsewhere.
You recently wrote a perspective in World Neurosurgery calling attention to the enormous amount of e-waste created by the healthcare industry. Why is this important?
There has been more attention paid to the carbon footprint of health care systems, including medical waste such as the gloves and masks used in great numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic. We all want to be protected, and this is the best way we know, but it generates a balloon of waste. While increasing attention is being paid to medical waste in general, medical e-waste is a relatively new topic in public discourse.
People don’t often think about the e-waste generated by all of the tests that we do in hospital systems. For instance, health care providers have transitioned from mercury to digital thermometers due to the risk of mercury. But these digital thermometers do not last forever. We have a very aggressive rate of turnover of these digital devices in health care because they have to work perfectly. That’s understandable — you don’t want to make mistakes with health care. But that’s also generating a lot of electronic waste that contains a lot of toxic materials.
So as we think about lowering the environmental footprint of the healthcare industry, electronic waste is a big part of it. Quantifying that, and figuring out ways to lower that footprint becomes increasingly important. And it can’t just be about the cost, because we’re partitioning that risk and that cost elsewhere.
You recently published a perspective on both the promise and potential health risks of circular economies. What considerations need to be in place to ensure that circular economies simultaneously promote sustainability and environmental justice?
The circular economy model was drawn out of a previous framework of industrial ecology where the waste of one industry is used as the raw material for another so there is really no waste. However, we all know there are always leakages. For example, automobiles have lead-acid batteries, even today. Two facilities in Los Angeles shred these batteries to extract the lead to use in other industries. These were not well-run factories, and communities near these facilities now suffer from high levels of lead poisoning due to the pollution from the factory.
If you really close the loop, as a circular economy wants to do, there should be no leakages. You should have the automobile or the electronics industry doing that processing themselves, not a third party that has other motives. So in the electronics industry, the argument is that Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, or Dell should invest as much into the end of the life of their products as they do into making it fancy and wonderful.
They need incentives to make this happen. They need to be responsible for closing this loop.
Big picture, what are your hopes for your time at Stanford?
Stanford is world class in everything pretty much that it does, and to me this is an opportunity to learn as well as to bring perspective on something that I’ve been working on over many years. I also hope to build partnerships and identify new research topics that I can carry forward beyond this year.
Education is very important to me, so I am quite happy to have been asked to contribute to some classes in global child health and planetary health. I am interested in conversation and collaboration regarding education in global health and planetary health. I recently published an article on integrating climate change into health sciences curricula and would be interested in supporting a workshop to accomplish curricula review if there is interest among faculty in Stanford’s Schools of Medicine and Sustainability.
Finally, the environmental justice lens of becoming more self-aware of how our actions and preferences might have impacts on remote locations is very important to me, and so I’m also intrigued by the emerging planetary health work at Stanford and the new Doerr School of Sustainability. I am part of the Planetary Health Center at the UC Global Health Institute, and I hope I can be a bridge between that center and CIGH.