Categories: Air Pollution

Electronic Pollution: Mobile | EMR| E-Waste – Its Effects

Greetings to you! I am Ajay, an Android developer by profession. This particular blog is inspired by my drive to a cleaner world in every way. We all want to live in a better world free from pollution with clean air and a healthy environment. We do a little about it though most of the time. I decided that I will write this blog to make people a bit more aware about mobile pollution and e-waste.

 

                                                            Android Phone (Source: www.iconfinder.com)

Mobile Pollution

I work with mobile phones all day as I have to develop apps for different devices with varied configurations and screen sizes. Naturally I thought that if I spend so much time with mobile phones, I should also be well aware of their environmental impacts. Thus I started writing this blog. Pollution has been around forever in forms like air pollution, water, land and so on. In the past few years,  a new type of pollution has emerged called “Electronic Pollution”. Electronics have been around for a very long time but since the start of the 21st century, electronics have taken over the world. With the electronics comes the advent of a world with the ability to do just about anything with just the push of a button. You can press a button and launch a missile or start a car making factory machine or start a car for that matter. The ease and comfort that all this brings with it is undeniable and is definitely the current future of the human race. There is even more comfort nowadays with the rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence). You can literally talk to a machine and get it to do things for you. Robots are getting more intelligent everyday. And when you add something like IoT (Internet of things) which means to connect everyday machines to the internet, you are talking about a world that makes the 60’s Sci-Fi movies look pale. Clearly there is no limit to electronics and the potential they hold making them almost completely indispensable to us.

But like with gravity, everything that goes up must come back down. It is the same with electronics. We have risen to great heights in this blog so far but gravity must pull us down again. We made all that electronic stuff alright but what about the environmental effects of it. Now comes the part where we need to understand what we are doing to our world when we create all this mess. There are things like e-waste, radio frequency problems that we need to address before we just keep going forward with this. So this blog will highlight some critical points that will help you become better prepared for aforementioned problems.

                                               Mobile Pollution (Source: www.freepik.com)

E-Waste

First of all, what is e-waste? E-Waste is short for electronic waste which naturally means the outdated electronic devices that lie dormant in our homes and large industries and eventually gets thrown away. We buy this stuff blindly but pay no heed to what happens when we throw them away. This is how e-waste is generated. 

Generally speaking about electronics, they are categorized as follows:

  • Large appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners etc.
  • Small household appliances like fryers, coffee machines etc.
  • IT equipment like computers, printers, monitors, probably card swipe systems etc.
  • Consumer electronics like Television, set top boxes etc.
  • Lamps and luminaires, toys, tools
  • Medical devices like heart rate monitor, artificial cardiac pacemaker etc.
  • Monitoring and control instruments
  • Automatic dispensers

Just about all of the devices in these categories are going to become e-waste at the end of their life-cycle. Considering about 10-20 devices from one house, one cannot even imagine the amount of e-waste that gets generated on the planet. 

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. In 2016, 44.7 million tonnes of waste was generated which is equal to 4500 Eiffel towers, whereas, 50 million tonnes of e-waste was generated during 2018 which gave it the name “tsunami of e-waste” by the UN.

                                                                                                                                                           Source: “Wikipedia”

Before we proceed further though, let’s just find out what makes this e-waste so bad anyway. We will take a look at what harm it can do.

                                                               

                                                                E-Waste (Source: www.freepik.com)

Effects of E-waste

E-waste affects the environment through the same means as any other type of waste. It will worsen the air, water and soil quality. This happens due to certain unwanted substances being released in the environment. These substances can be chemicals or gases. 

Here are some points explaining their effects on the environment:

  • E-waste is often dispersed by dismantling, shredding or melting the metals releasing dust particles and toxins into the environment. Burning of e-waste is also done for getting metals like copper, this also releases fine particles into the air. These particles and toxins increase the risk of chronic diseases and cancers. These are the gaseous releases that degrade the quality of air.
  • Chemicals stored in the electronic components affect the soil and water adversely. Toxic components like mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants etc. are released from e-waste. These chemicals get released into the soil due to landfills and make the soil bad for crops and plants. Also when released into water they cause contamination of water thus endangering marine life.

                                                      4. Battery corrosion (Source: www.freepik.com)

Mobiles and E-waste

Mobile phones have taken over as the most important electronic device by far. This is due to the unbelievable things they can do with minimal efforts from the user. You can just chat with anybody anywhere on the planet, even video call them easily enough. Today’s phones make the early 2000’s computer look like the Abacus. There is no doubt that mobile phones will live even for centuries to come. Not only will they live, they will excel at it. 

When it comes to mobiles, they are pretty much up there in contributing to e-waste. These days we have flagship mobile phones. Following the same analogy, one can even say that mobile phones are the flagship of e-waste.

India holds second rank in smartphone market after China globally. According to the telecom analysis firm Counterpoint Research, there are 650 million Indian mobile users.  

A survey done by e-commerce site “Quikr Bazaar” in 2017 showed that 40% of the people replace their phones in less than a year.  

Experts say that India generates over 2 million metric tons of e-waste annually.

“By number or in terms of quantity, mobile phones are the biggest contributors to e-waste,” says Priti Mahesh of environmental NGO Toxics Link.

While Mahesh says that 80 to 85 percent of a particular discarded mobile phone can be recycled, a majority of this total recyclable e-waste is dangerously handled by the informal sector, with little regulation.

                                                                                                                                                              Source: theprint.in

As mentioned in the quote, informal handling of mobiles could prove to be quite hazardous to us all. Informal handling will probably mostly be landfills where you just dump all the phones in a land somewhere. This is ill-fated as it will degrade the land productivity. Not only land, it will affect water and air too.

E-waste Recycling

Recycling of e-waste has grown due to increasing concerns of e-waste accumulation. Recycling in general is a very good habit as it helps prevent accumulation of garbage and produce new components at the same time. It is perhaps the oldest and most efficient method of re-generation of products. With the advent of industrialization, recycling evolved into a new form. It became more than just some extra measure but a necessity as the scale of production went through the sky. Government has created policies for recycling waste which must be followed. Not following these will lead to punishment or some sort of fine. 

Recycling is not just limited to waste but it is even becoming a market where people can do business. Guiyu is a town in China which is known for e-waste management. Guiyu has been called the electronic graveyard of the world due to a lot of e-waste being moved into and processed. 

In developing countries, strict domestic regulation, non-existent or unenforced regulations created economic incentives and globalization brought free trade and introduced the recyclers to export electronic waste. Discarded electronics have some valued parts that led migration of poverty stricken citizens to Guiyu for its processing.   

There are 5500 businesses in Guiyu out of which most are family workshops. Lead, copper, gold and other metals of value are extracted from old electronics. The industry gave employment to many people and 1.5 million pounds of discarded computers, cell phones and other electronic items are dismantled every year.    

An average worker, adult/ child, makes $1.50 per day and there are 16 working hours. This amount is made by extracting valuable metals and other parts that are within the piles of discarded electronics. Even this relatively tiny profit is enough motivation for workers to risk their health. 

                                                                                                                                                  Source: www.wikipedia.com

You will observe that e-waste recycling has become a business sector as well with many people employed on its processes.

Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR)

A mobile phone is primarily used to make phone calls. A typical phone call is connected through radio frequency waves which connect to the tower and relay signal to the other person. Since these waves lie at the core of the technology, we are constantly swimming in an ocean of electromagnetic waves. Now this can be good or bad depending upon how the human body responds to these waves. Let’s look at how the human body responds to these waves.

Electromagnetic radiation can cause various problems in humans which can be related to the brain, skin etc. We will look at these in a little bit of detail here. Brain is a critical human organ which governs just about all motion in the body. Now when interacting with mobile phones the brain is exposed to electromagnetic radiation which causes abnormal activities. These activities can be like delayed reaction times of the body. Getting used to phones for too long can hamper the body orientation and response times making for slow reaction times. Also using phones for too long can affect sleep patterns. Not being able to sleep for too long after lying down or waking up too late after going to sleep. These are bad sleep patterns and will affect your health with symptoms like headache, eating disorders etc.

                                                             Brain Activity (Source: www.freepik.com)

There are also other effects of exposure to electromagnetic radiation from phones. Short-term exposure to it can cause tissue heating. The energy from the waves is absorbed by the superficial tissues and skin that causes a rise in temperature. In extreme cases, the body’s cooling system may be unable to cope with the heat load, leading to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. There are also long-term effects due to this exposure. DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) and their misrepair in stem cells lead to multistage origination of various leukemia and tumors, including brain tumors such as gliomas. DSB repair and severe stress response have been triggered by electromagnetic fields from mobile phones. IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic waves as possibly carcinogenic to humans under Group 2B. This group means that it is credible but cannot rule out the chance with reasonable confidence.

                                                 Electromagnetic exposure (Source: www.freepik.com)

Limiting Exposure

Exposure to the electromagnetic fields can be limited by taking certain measures. Let’s first define exposure in measurable terms. Specific absorption rate (SAR) is the rate of radiofrequency absorption per unit mass of the body. Generally it would be advisable to keep the phone away from your body. Of course if you make a phone call, you will need to keep the phone adjoined to your head. In such a case, you can use headphones to keep the phone away and still stay connected. It should generally be good to keep the phone about 12 inches away from your eye and thumb. In the same way, keeping your phone in your backpack is probably a better idea than keeping it in your pocket all the time. There are also some covers for smartphones that work also as EMF shields. Switching to such cover cases will help reduce the exposure by a great deal. 

There are also some guidelines provided in the following papers to protect from electromagnetic fields:

  • International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Statement on the “Guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields (up to 300 GHz)”, 2009.
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). IEEE standard for safety levels with respect to human exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields, 3 kHz to 300 GHz, IEEE Std C95.1, 2005.

Eye Strain

Since digital screens were developed, life took a new turn like the birth of a new member in the family. Screens with numerous content became something everyone has and rejoices in. Earlier there were televisions which had channels that showed content like movies, news, sports etc. Everyone watched it and then discussed it creating a new kind of buzz. In the later years like 80s and 90s, many waves came like action movies, pop music, sports like football, cricket which made a lot of buzz worldwide and everyone watched it on TV. Thus there is no denying the necessity of a TV. But when you are dealing with such a necessary thing it will naturally bring some necessary disasters with it. This is the eye strain the screen time causes to our eyes.

Obviously, TV is just one thing then came things with much worse screen times i.e. computers. Now TV is just content to watch whereas computers are not just watch but do as well. An average person working on a computer may spend approximately more than 5 hours daily which might even be at a stretch sometimes. Now this is something which might lead to every person using spectacles for eyesight issues. In fact many people have gotten glasses due to computers. Now computers are extreme but there is still another that surpasses them which is a mobile phone. Specifically speaking, a smartphone is the biggest culprit here. Spending time on a computer is nothing compared to time on a smartphone as it is portable and goes with the person every place they go. It is also the biggest time pass when travelling via train or other mediums of transportation. 

Smartphone is basically a miniaturized portable computer and that is exactly what makes it more deadly. Average usage these days might even be 8 hours or more for a typical individual using a smartphone.

                                                               Eye Strain (Source: www.freepik.com)

Eye Strain issues

Studies say that after screen time more than 2 hours can lead to eye strain and other health issues. The other health issues may include vision being blurry, eyes feeling dry and itchy, headaches, pain in the neck and shoulder. Also certain ageing related problems with eyes like hypermetropia may cause troubles sooner than they should. So it is generally not a good idea to stay in front of a screen for too long. One could even say it is not something that is natural to the human lifecycle flow. Saying that a person eats fruits is a very natural process but spending time in front of a screen is not quite so. Non-natural elements will obviously cause trouble to humans as they are supposedly stopping the natural flow. Eyes are supposed to take in sunlight and natural lighting if we go by evolutionary norms. Putting them in front of non-natural lighting is obviously not such a good thing to do. With mobile phones these issues are the worst as they are not only used for a longer duration but also much closer to the screen. With such reduced distances it causes increased damage.

Remedy

There are obvious ways to protect from eye damage while using phones. You can use the blue light filters provided by phone manufacturers or night light filters. Also there are certain glass protectors for screens that provide protection from phone light. One can also keep the brightness reduced for eye protection. Anti-glare glasses is another option. You can also make a list of tasks that you don’t necessarily have to do on the phone and do them on a computer or some other device. This will help significantly reduce your screen time.

Conclusion

We saw the harmful side of mobile phones and the danger they hold within along with the future they hold within. All this time in the blog we were tackling the gravity that the ugly side of a technology like mobile phone brings with it. First we found the things that cause gravity like toxicity from e-waste, tumors from electromagnetic radiation, dizziness from eye strain etc. Then we tackled it with measures like e-waste recycling, keeping distance to the phone and reducing screen time. Hoping that if we cannot rule out the gravity but still we can reduce it a great deal by taking the right measures and moving to the future without halting at all and nothing holding us back.

That will be all from me for this time. Have a good day.

Ajay

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