Africa, a toxic dumping ground: The West has been trashing dangerous toxins in Africa for decades, e-waste will make it worse

Luc Gnago, Reuters
Residents of Abidjan, Ivory Coast sickened by the toxic waste dumped in the city’s landfills, wait to see doctors. Poisonous fumes have killed seven and made thousands ill. The country’s government has resigned.

Thierry Gouegnon, Reuters
French waste treatment experts clean up toxic chemicals dumped at a landfill in the Ivory Coast.

Photo Courtesy of Greenpeace
Greenpeace activists paint a slogan on the cargo ship Probo Koala in the harbour of Paldiski Port, Estonia. The ship was seized in Estonia after being linked with the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast.

One August morning, people living near the Akouedo rubbish dump in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, woke up to a foul-smelling air. Soon, they began to vomit, children got diarrhea, and the elderly found it difficult to breathe. “The smell was unbelievable, a cross between rotten eggs and blocked drains,” said one Abidjan resident. “After 10 minutes in the thick of it, I felt sick.”
As they live near the biggest landfill in Abidjan, the people of Akouedo are used to having rubbish dumped on their doorstep. Trucks unload broken glass, rotting food and used syringes. Children try to make the best of their dismal playground, looking for scraps of metal and old clothes to sell for a few cents.
But this time, the waste would benefit no one. At least eight people, including two children, have died from the fumes. Another 44,000 have sought treatment for nausea, vomiting and headaches, queuing for hours at hastily set up clinics. Pharmacies have run out of medicines and the World Health Organization has sent emergency supplies to help the health system. The Ivorian government had resigned over the matter and, so far, eight people have been arrested.
The tragedy is said to have begun on Aug. 19, after a ship chartered by a Dutch company off-loaded 400 tons of gasoline, water and caustic washings used to clean oil drums. The cargo was dumped at Akouedo and at least 10 other sites around the city, including in a channel leading to a lake, roadsides and open grounds.
The liquids began to send up fumes of hydrogen sulphide, petroleum distillates and sodium hydroxides across the city. As the tidy-up operation begins, environmental groups have begun to ask how this occurred.
“We thought the days when companies shipped toxic waste to poor countries were over,” said Helen Perivier, toxics co-ordinator for Greenpeace. “It peaked in the 1980s but since then the determination of African countries to stamp the trade out has helped yield results. That this has happened again is extraordinary.”
The tanker that carried the waste was ordered held in port Wednesday by Estonian authorities who launched a criminal investigation.
Ivory Coast and environmental activists from Greenpeace urged Estonia to impound the Probo Koala, which is moored in the Baltic port of Paldiski, about 40 kilometres southwest of Tallinn.
Estonia’s state prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation, saying the Probo Koala’s crew was suspected of trying to dump residue washings, or slops, into the port of Paldiski without permission.
Tests results of slop samples taken from the ship showed traces of “environmentally dangerous, poisonous chemicals” believed to be the same as those found in Abidjan, the prosecutor’s office said.
“Probo Koala will remain at the Paldiski port as long as the proceedings require,” it said.
The ship is registered in Panama and chartered by the Dutch trading company Trafigura Beheer. Trafigura had tried to off-load its slops in Amsterdam, but the Amsterdam Port Services recognized its contents as toxic and asked to renegotiate terms. Trafigura said shipping delays would mean penalties of at least $250,000 US so the company handed it over to a disposal company in Abidjan alongside a “written request that the material should be safely disposed of, according to country laws, and with all the correct documentation.”
This story is a common one. All down the West Africa coast, ships registered in the U.S. and Europe unload containers filled with old computers, slops, and used medical equipment. Scrap merchants, corrupt politicians and underpaid civil servants take charge of this rubbish and, for a few dollars, will dump them off coastlines and on landfill sites.
Throughout the 1980s, Africa was Europe’s most popular dumping ground, with radioactive waste and toxic chemicals foisted on landowners. In 1987, an Italian ship dumped a load of waste on Koko Beach, Nigeria. Workers who came into contact with it suffered from chemical burns and partial paralysis, and began to vomit blood.
Thereafter, the UN drew up plans to regulate the trade in hazardous waste through the Basel Convention. By 1998, the European Union had agreed to implement the ban, which prohibited the export of hazardous wastes from developed countries to the developing world, but the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand refused to sign up; global waterways are still filled with ships looking to unload their toxic waste.
And now, there is a new threat — the dumping of electronic waste, or e-waste: unwanted mobile phones, computers and printers, which contain cadmium, lead, mercury and other poisons. More than 20 million computers become obsolete in the U.S. alone each year.
The U.K. generates almost 2 million tons of electronic waste. Disposing of this in the U.S. and Europe costs money, so many companies sell it to middle merchants, who promise the computers can be reused in Africa, China and India.
Each month, about 500 container loads, containing about 400,000 unwanted computers, arrive in Nigeria to be processed. But 75 per cent of units shipped to Nigeria cannot be resold. So they sit in landfills, and children scrabble barefoot, looking for scraps of copper wire or nails. And every so often, the plastics are burnt, sending fumes up into the air.
“There is a tradition of burning rubbish all over Africa, but this new burning of electronic equipment is incredibly dangerous,” said Sarah Westervelt of the Basel Action Network, a pressure group that monitors the trade in hazardous waste.
The UN Environment Program estimates that worldwide, 20 million to 50 million tons of electronics are discarded each year. Less than 10 per cent gets recycled and half or more ends up overseas. As western technology becomes cheaper and the latest gadget comes to be regarded as a disposable fashion statement, this dumping will only grow.
“Electronic goods are the fastest growing area of retail,” said Liz Parkes, head of waste regulation at the Environment Agency. “We need to encourage people to think about whether they really need a new electronic item, and to consider what happens to the goods they throw out.”

Ivorian toxic waste dumping brings hardship, anxiety
Peter Murphy, Reuters
ABIDJAN, Sept 30 (Reuters) – Jobless and living on the edge of Abidjan’s main rubbish dump, Jean Kouame has little money to buy food for himself and his family, but he won’t touch the fruit and vegetables scattered on the grass near his home.
Felled banana and tomato plants are left to rot after Ivory Coast’s government ordered the destruction of the dump’s vegetable plots following a toxic waste scandal which plunged the war-divided West African country into crisis.
Eight people were killed and thousands hospitalised by noxious fumes from the black sludge dumped here and at 14 other sites in Ivory Coast’s main city last month. Fears over long-term health problems persist.
“My wife has just taken our son to the hospital,” Kouame lamented, saying the ten-month-old boy had a high temperature and a rash, symptoms of toxic poisoning. “He had small black spots on his body, but they were really big on his face.”
A team of French waste disposal specialists are working to remove the sludge, which was unloaded from a Panamanian registered tanker, the Probo Koala. They expect to ship it for processing in October, possibly in France.
Awake since before dawn when the wind blew more fumes into his home, prompting him to take refuge in an unaffected corner of the village, Kouame frets that his meagre livelihood farming vegetables has suddenly been taken from him.
“They took a dumper truck and crushed all the plants,” he said, repulsed by the stench as he tried to approach the spot where the foul-smelling waste was discarded.
“We are not even allowed to go there. If they see us on the plots we will be taken to the village chief. We don’t know how many years this will go on before we can start again,” Kouame said, standing on the edge of the vast landfill site.
Ten people have now been arrested in the West African state including the director and West African director of Dutch-based oil trading firm Trafigura which chartered the Probo Koala. The vessel was impounded this week in the Estonian port of Paldiski.
Trafigura says the waste was “chemical slops” — a mixture of gasoline, spent caustic soda and water — and insists it was a normal by-product from the cleaning of tanks used to transport fuel. But some experts who have analysed it dispute that.
A string of inquiries have been launched both in Ivory Coast and in Europe. It is still not clear where the cargo came from.
Few in Abidjan still wear the paper masks which were widely donned when the fumes were strongest, but health officials say they are unsure of the potential long-term health effects.
“People aren’t as scared now so there are fewer calls coming through,” said Jonas Irie, manning the phones on the toxic waste hotline set up to give people advice and information. Hospitals had been swamped as people sought treatment and doctors said this was driven both by fear of the fumes of which little was known at first, and fraud following the offer of free medicines, pushing the number of consultations to beyond 90,000.
Playing cards with other fishermen on the edge of Abidjan’s vast lagoon, Lazard Beugre, 32, says they are ignoring a ban on fishing in the lagoon polluted by waste the rain washed into it.
“They sent us a letter to say it was forbidden to fish, but if the water was contaminated then the fish should be dead. When we catch them, they’re alive,” Beugre said, to nods of agreement from his fishermen companions.
“When we take it to sell to the fish fryers, they say they want them so we give it to them. Maybe it can make people sick, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve stopped eating fish … since I am already sick. If I eat more of it, who knows.”

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