AN INTERNATIONAL scientific researcher has called on business to help drive an urgent global effort to combat growing toxic residues from the world's disposal of old mobile phones, computers and electronic devices.
"Electronic waste -- or e-waste -- is the world's fastest growing waste stream, rising by 3-5 percent every year, due to the decreased lifespan of the average computer from six years to two," said Professor Ming Hung Wong of the Hong Kong Baptist University.
"In countries such as Australia the disposal of e-waste in landfills generates a potent leachate, which has high concentrations of flame retardant chemicals and heavy metals. These can migrate through soils and groundwater and eventually reach people via tap water and the food chain."
Professor Wong delivered a keynote paper at CleanUp 2013, the world's leading scientific contamination conference, which is being held in Melbourne throughout this week, closing with site visits on Thursday.
In many countries in Asia and Africa, e-waste from advanced nations is being recycled under extremely primitive conditions which leads to extensive pollution of air, water, food and people, Prof. Wong said.
"Gradually these toxins make their way around the world in food and water and via trade, posing a risk to everyone," he said.
"The toxic chemicals generated through open burning of e-waste include PCDD, PBDEs, PAHs, PCBs and heavy metals (especially lead) have given rise to serious environmental contamination.
"Some of these toxic chemicals are known to build up in fish especially, which may then be traded locally and around the world," Prof. Wong said.
"In general, any food items originating in e-waste processing areas are highly contaminated, leading to sharp increases in cancers and heart disease and other ailments in people who consume them."
Prof. Wong said science has now clearly demonstrated the risk of these toxic chemicals being passed on to the next generation, while babies are still in the womb, or even through their mother's milk.
"At the same time these e-waste contaminated sites are extremely hard to clean up due to the complex chemical mixtures they contain. However the time may soon be coming when developing countries will no longer accept e-waste from consumers in developed countries - and every nation will have to take care of its own.
"It is clear there is an urgent need to manage e-waste more efficiently in all countries and through better international collaboration."
Total world e-waste production has been estimated as high as 50 million tonnes a year, and is a growing component of the world's estimated annual output of 400 million tonnes of hazardous waste, only a small fraction of which is safely disposed.
CleanUp 2013 is hosted by the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE). It is being held at the Crown Conference Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, until September 18.
Cleanup 2013 incorporates the 5th International Contaminated Site Remediation Conference.
In his role as chair professor of biology and director of Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences at the Hong Kong Baptist University, Prof. Wong has established a multi-disciplinary team including environmental toxicologists, molecular biologists, analytical chemists, mathematicians, medical professionals and environmental managers for tackling environmental problems. He is recognised internationally for his work on environmental impact assessment, and in particular, contaminant impact on environment health.