Sunday,21 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Sunday,21 April, 2019
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hazards of e-waste

Al-Ahram Weekly talks to experts about the dangers of using mobile phones and disposing of electronic waste

Controversy is still rife in scientific circles regarding the relationship between radiation emitted from mobile phones and certain illnesses, writes Mahmoud Bakr. Experts in the field cannot confirm that being exposed to this kind of radiation leads to diseases like cancer, but this has not stopped the controversy.

“Talking on a mobile phone for long hours may result in loss of memory, headaches, fatigue, insomnia and stiffening of the joints of the hands,” according to Abdel-Masih Samaan, a professor of environmental education and deputy head of the Environmental Studies and Research Institute at Ain Shams University in Cairo.

“Electromagnetic waves emitted from mobile phones cause body temperature to rise above normal levels, and excessive use of such phones can result in dysfunctions in the central nervous system,” Samaan added. The moderate use of such phones, however, “lessens the electromagnetic waves to which the human body is exposed, resulting in better health,” he said.

With almost every Egyptian now regularly using a mobile phone, “safety measures have to be strictly applied according to the Specific Absorption Rate [SAR]” of the radiation concerned, Samaan said, insisting that “safety measures should be identified at 1.6 w/kg, and relay stations at a certain distance away.”

The question of whether mobile phones can have harmful effects on the brain depends on the frequency of the waves concerned and the duration of being exposed to them. “There is no proof that using mobile phones or living close to relay stations leads to brain tumours or other diseases,” he added.

“But children should not play with mobile phones. Radiation affects adults by 25 per cent, children by 50 per cent, and toddlers less than five years of age by 75 per cent,” Samaan warned.

On a similar note, Medhat Al-Mesiri, a professor of medical engineering at Cairo University, warned against the environmental and health hazards of electronic waste. “There are more than six billion mobile-phone users worldwide, but not a single case has been recorded of tumours as a result. However, Egyptians alone dispose of millions of mobile-phone batteries annually,” and these have to be disposed of safely.

Al-Mesiri explained that there were environmental hazards associated with not disposing of electronic waste properly, especially that from mobile devices. “The world produces more than a billion mobile phones every month, or 30 per second. Approximately 200,000 computers in the United States are disposed of daily. Around 220,000 tons (some 50-80 per cent) of US e-waste is exported to Third World countries in the shape of second-hand equipment, donations to charities and training in illegal ways,” he said.

“Being exposed to fumes from electronic waste has negative effects on the stomach, the pancreas, the kidney and the lungs, and can cause mental retardation among children,” Al-Mesiri added.

It is important to follow safety measures when using mobile phones, including those recommended by specialised international associations and committing to specified SARs, said Sherif Eissa, head of the Health and Environment Department at Orange Egypt.

“Mobile phones should not be used when the signal is weak or when they are being recharged because this is when the device produces more radiation than on average. Overusing a mobile device is also dangerous: the duration of a phone call should not exceed six minutes,” Eissa advised.

“Pregnant women should avoid placing mobile devices close to their stomachs. Turn the phone off in emergency rooms and during flight take-off and landing. Use in moderation if you have a pacemaker or are using a hearing aid. Always choose your mobile phone wisely,” Eissa said. 

Environmental expert Mohamed Al-Zarka warned against the unsafe handling of electronic waste, especially from mobile phones, explaining that “rapid technological advances have led people to use countless electronic devices. It is not surprising to find tons of electronic waste, especially in Africa and developing countries, as a result.”

In Egypt, Al-Zarka said, “handling electronic waste is done by scrap merchants and workshops in Cairo and other governorates. They get hold of second-hand spare parts and install them in makeshift devices. This increases the health hazards when the devices are recycled as waste.”

 “Some of the merchants also melt electronic motherboards to extract the gold and silver from them. This practice is extremely dangerous for health and the environment,” he added.

“Barium, for example, is an alkaline metal used in florescent lights. If a person comes into direct contact with barium even for a short period of time, he could develop tumours in the brain, muscle weakness, or a damaged liver and spleen,” Al-Zarka warned. “Studies conducted on animals have also shown that exposition to barium causes high blood pressure and heart palpitations.”

“Cadmium is a chemical element used in mobile phones, computers and televisions. When these devices are turned into waste through burning, the cadmium fumes that are given off result in feelings of weakness. The symptoms resemble those of influenza, such as fever, headaches, sweating, trembling and muscle pain, in addition to bone fragility,” Al-Zarka said.

“Some 22 per cent of the world’s use of mercury is in electronic and electrical devices, and it is primarily used in the manufacturing of thermostats, computers, connectors, printed circuits, batteries, mobile phones and flat-screen televisions. Mercury is highly poisonous, and contact with it may lead to liver and brain diseases,” he added.

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