Developmental Neurotoxicants in E-Waste: An Emerging Health Concern

By Chen, Aimin; Dietrich, Kim N. et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Developmental Neurotoxicants in E-Waste: An Emerging Health Concern


Chen, Aimin, Dietrich, Kim N., Huo, Xia, Ho, Shuk-mei, Environmental Health Perspectives


OBJECTIVE: Electronic waste (e-waste) has been an emerging environmental health issue in both developed and developing countries, but its current management practice may result in unintended developmental neurotoxicity in vulnerable populations. To provide updated information about the scope of the issue, presence of known and suspected neurotoxicants, toxicologic mechanisms, and current data gaps, we conducted this literature review.

DATA SOURCES: We reviewed original articles and review papers in PubMed and Web of Science regarding e-waste toxicants and their potential developmental neurotoxicity. We also searched published reports of intergovernmental and governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations on e-waste production and management practice.

Data EXTRACTION: We focused on the potential exposure to e-waste toxicants in vulnerable populations--that is, pregnant women and developing children--and neurodevelopmental outcomes. In addition, we summarize experimental evidence of developmental neurotoxicity and mechanisms.

DATA SYNTHESIS: In developing countries where most informal and primitive e-waste recycling occurs, environmental exposure to lead, cadmium, chromium, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is prevalent at high concentrations in pregnant women and young children. Developmental neurotoxicity is a serious concern in these regions, but human studies of adverse effects and potential mechanisms are scarce. The unprecedented mixture of exposure to heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants warrants further studies and necessitates effective pollution control measures.

CONCLUSIONS: Pregnant women and young children living close to informal e-waste recycling sites are at risk of possible perturbations of fetus and child neurodevelopment.

Key WORDS: cadmium, chromium, developmental neurotoxicity, epigenetics, e-waste, lead, mercury, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, toxicologic mechanisms. Environ Health Perspect 119:431-438 (2011). doi:10.1289/ehp.1002452 [Online 15 November 2010]

Electronic waste (e-waste) has emerged as a critical global environmental health issue because of its massive production volume and insufficient management policy in many countries (Ogunseitan et al. 2009). E-waste includes waste cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions, desktops, laptops, CRT monitors, liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, cell phones, keyboards, computer mice, printers, and copiers. E-waste contains metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs); inappropriate recycling processes occur in several developing countries and result in the release of these toxicants into the environment (LaDou and Lovegrove 2008; Robinson 2009). Although serious health concerns arise from these primitive recycling activities, the research needs are largely unaddressed. The developing fetus and child are particularly vulnerable to several known and suspected developmental neurotoxicants in e-waste.

In this review, we survey the literature to provide updated information about major toxicants in e-waste, potential neurodevelopmental toxicity in children, and potential preventative measures to reduce exposure. Because the rate of e-waste accumulation is startling and the combinatorial effects of toxicants are complex, this review addresses an urgent need to evaluate potential adverse health effects of this unprecedented exposure scenario.

Production and Management of E-Waste

E-waste is the fastest-growing stream of municipal solid waste, but its management is a significant environmental health concern. It is estimated that 20-50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually worldwide; the United States, Western Europe, China, Japan, and Australia are the major producers [Cobbing 2008; Davis and Herat 2010; Robinson 2009; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 2005]. Figure 1 shows an incomplete list of e-waste volume and major informal recycling sites. …

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