MUNTAKA CHASANT
PEOPLE & STORIES
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Child Labour in Photos: Electronic Waste

Note: Images in this post are strictly for documentary and editorial purposes. I have been documenting hazardous child labour at Agbogbloshie for some time now. My hope is that this body of work will bring this situation to the forefront. See the links below for details and more photographs. Hazardous Child Labour Photos Informal disposal […]

May 20, 2020

Child labour in Ghana photo.

Note: Images in this post are strictly for documentary and editorial purposes. I have been documenting hazardous child labour at Agbogbloshie for some time now. My hope is that this body of work will bring this situation to the forefront. See the links below for details and more photographs. Hazardous Child Labour Photos Informal disposal […]

Note: Images in this post are strictly for documentary and editorial purposes.



I have been documenting hazardous child labour at Agbogbloshie for some time now.

My hope is that this body of work will bring this situation to the forefront.

See the links below for details and more photographs.

Hazardous Child Labour Photos

Informal disposal and recycling of end-of-life electronics (e-waste ) may be poisoning a generation of young people living on the margins of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

The photographs on this page are only a small window on their lives.

For food, clothes, and the expectation to contribute to their household economy, Osei and the other children use their bare hands to cannibalize from discarded e-waste and sift through the soil using fingers — to retrieve small pieces of metals — in an area renowned for its heavy metals pollution.

They are exposed to toxic materials, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and barium.

A study in 2013 found lead levels as high as 18,125 parts per million (ppm) in one of the soil samples collected from around Agbogbloshie.1 US EPA’s recommended safe limits for lead in bare soil in children’s play areas is 400 (parts per million) ppm and 1200 ppm for non-play areas.2

The Basel Action Network and the International Pollutants Elimination Network also found the highest levels of brominated and chlorinated dioxins ever measured in free-range chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie in a 2019 study3, fearing this may be contaminating Ghana’s food chain.

The children engaged in hazardous child labour in this post are part of thousands of people who toil in the toxic environment at Agbogbloshie every day trying to salvage usable materials from the waste stream.

Kristen Grant and other researchers in a 2013 study published in The Lancet Global Health4 examined — 23 epidemiological studies — the association between exposure to e-waste and health outcomes from 1965 to 2012 in southeast China. They found credible outcomes associated with exposure to e-waste including reduced lung function, changes in cellular expression and function, stillbirths, miscarriage, and evidence of greater DNA damage compared to a control group.

What is Going on in the Photographs?

There’s no doubt that some e-waste is still making its way into Ghana, with some ending up at a place such as Agbogbloshie. But a significant chunk of the e-waste that ends up at Agbogbloshie is locally generated.

For me, where the e-waste is generated and where and how it is recycled is absolutely important. Not so much for where it was made. We can make the same argument for cars, leather shoes, and toothbrushes.

The Basel Convention allows for repair and reuse. A sizable number of the e-waste that makes their way into Ghana are repaired and reused. Not all Ghanaian households — with roughly around $2200 GDP per capita — can afford brand new LG or Samsung LED TVs.

There’s a large market for e-waste in Ghana. For instance, some of the end-of-life cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs and computer monitors on this page had been in Ghana for decades. They had been used by local households and businesses and had added value to the local economy before being cannibalized at Agbogbloshie.

Itinerant collectors pay a small fee for them from households and repair shops throughout Ghana. The collectors sell their goods to scrap dealers inside the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard and other places.

For the old CRT TVs, the interior parts are “urban mined” for valuable components, including circuit boards and cables.

The lead-filled CRT funnel glasses part are then discarded on nearby e-waste dumpsites or left around for the children to pick up. These glasses are a waste for the scrap dealers. But for the urban poor children around Agbogbloshie, the iron materials inside are a source of instant cash.

These once symbols of high-quality engineering are smashed against rocks and repeatedly hit with stones for the shadow mask, aperture grille (Sony Trinitron), and other precious metals.

CRTs from old TVs and computer screens contain high levels of toxic materials, including lead5, barium, and cadmium (in the phosphors)6 7, and are known to pose risks to human health and the environment.

CRT funnel glass contains around 22% of lead by weight8 9. Their recycling is heavily regulated in many countries, including the US10, where several States prohibit their disposal in municipal waste landfills.11

How Children at Agbogbloshie Reclaim Iron Materials From Old CRT TVs

The photographs below show in series how smashing the CRT TVs against a rock could instantly reveal the iron materials inside.

They hit the panel glass with rocks directly when smashing the CRT TV against a rock fails.

Then use different techniques to remove the rest of the glass:

When a glass appears too tough, an experienced person steps in to help.

11-year-old with an Old Computer Monitor

Ibrahim, 11 years old, here struggles with a tough glass.

What Happens After all of this?

It’s now time to weigh and sell.

Weighing and Selling

Mustafa and Osei’s haul weighed 24 kg. Iron scrap sold at GH₵0.80 (around $0.15) per kilo in May 2020 at Agbogbloshie. Approximated, they made GH₵20 in total (around $3.45). Each took GH₵10 ($1.7) for the day’s work.

Yes, that’s all they got for the risk and exposure to lead and other heavy metals.

But Osei and Mustafa are happy. The $1.7 should get them some food and new sets of clothes for the day. They might even keep a change for their urban poor parents.

Here’s a puzzle for you:

The iron materials now begin their journey.

Where do you think they are headed?

The Place of Urban Poor Children in Society

We are all in a tussle, but the urban poor are more torn apart by the system.

Sequestered on the fringes, urban poor children face severe exclusion and misery. Not even basic services such as safe water, adequate sanitation, and health care reach them.

For me, the situation of the children in this post is not because of something that happened to them or their poor parents, but the consequence of the society in which they live.

© 2020 Muntaka Chasant

Sources

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290519876_Exploratory_Health_Assessment_of_Chemical_Exposures_at_E-Waste_Recycling_and_Scrapyard_Facility_in_Ghana
  2. https://www.epa.gov/lead/hazard-standards-lead-paint-dust-and-soil-tsca-section-403
  3. https://www.ban.org/news/2019/4/24/rotten-eggs-e-waste-from-europe-poisons-ghanas-food-chain
  4. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(13)70101-3/fulltext
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878029616001213
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25776743
  7. https://www.americanelements.com/cadmium-metal-7440-43-9
  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921344913001419
  9. https://giecdn.blob.core.windows.net/fileuploads/file/an%20analysis%20of%20the%20demand%20for%20crt%20glass%20processing%20in%20the%20u%20s.pdf
  10. https://www.epa.gov/hw/frequent-questions-about-regulation-used-cathode-ray-tubes-crts-and-crt-glass
  11. https://www.ecycleclearinghouse.org/DocRepository/rptLandfillBans.pdf

Comments (2):

  1. Anna Hoas

    May 24, 2020at 1:15 pm

    Thank you so much for documenting this uncomfortable and largely ignored issue. 🙏🏾 The photos are powerful and the captions bring us so close to the reality of these children and young men.
    I am running the social media for Take 10 Volunteer – at the moment we have had to suspend our solidarity work / volunteer programmes because of the corona situation) – but we still want to bring important social justice / human rights / climate justice topics to our followers. I would like to use some of your photos for our Instagram account on the World Day Against Child Labour which is on 12 June. You can see our account here: https://www.instagram.com/take10volunteer/
    We will of course credit you and put a link to your article / website in our caption and on the linktree in the bio. What do you think?

    Best,

    Anna

    Reply
  2. George Rodgers

    August 2, 2021at 8:34 am

    a fascinating and important documentary of a sad problem, worldwide. I would like permission to uise a couple of your photos in a lecture I will be giving to a group of medical toxicologists in the US.
    George Rodgers

    Reply

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