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e-waste comes to karbala
old phones and computers threaten public health

Abbas Sarhan
In the relatively prosperous city of Karbala, locals are used to buying cheap mobile phones, then simply throwing them out when they break down. They also discard used computers, televisions and other electronic…
27.03.2014  |  Karbala
In Karbala, old mobile phones are just thrown in the ordinary rubbish.
In Karbala, old mobile phones are just thrown in the ordinary rubbish.

In Karbala, locals quite commonly buy two or three cheap mobile phones at a time and after using them for a couple of months they simply replace them.

And people here have different reasons for getting a new mobile phone. Ahmad Badr, 27, says he is often tempted by new models because of the way they look or the new technology. “Every time I see a new model, I feel like selling my old phone or maybe giving it to my younger brothers,” says Badr, who admits to having gone through 21 mobile phones over recent years.

Even Hamid Rhaman, who is in his 60s, says he’s had nine mobile phones since they became available in Karbala. “I replaced most of them because of technical issues but in some cases, I did get a new one simply because I wanted a better model,” he explains.

These examples fit with what mobile phone store owners see regularly: younger people replace their phones more often and it often has much to do with following trends. And women replace their phones more often than men. Those least likely to shop for a new phone regularly are older men.

But what happens to all the old phones? “We can’t really do anything with the old or damaged phones,” says Rida Bahr, the owner of a phone repair store in Karbala. “Sometimes repair shops like mine keep the old phones for a while. But then we run out of space and we basically just have to throw them in the garbage along with other household rubbish.”

Electronic waste, or e-waste, as it is more commonly known, is a serious and growing problem around the world. As the United Nations’ International Labour Organization said in a 2009 report: “Today, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream (about 4 per cent growth a year). About 40 million tonnes of e-waste is created each year … [it] comprises electrical appliances such as fridges, air conditioners, washing machines, microwave ovens, and fluorescent light bulbs; and electronic products such as computers and accessories, mobile phones, television sets and stereo equipment.”

The materials used in the manufacture of electronics products are often either hard to recycle or else may be toxic to humans; sometimes these components may leach into the ground or be spread in the atmosphere. The BBC wrote about a recent report on the subject that showed a large number of people were at risk from e-waste, saying that “toxic waste [is in a similar league to public health threats such as malaria and tuberculosis”.

And while Iraq is not quite the dumping ground for dead electronic products that some countries – such as India – are, what happens to things like old mobile phones and televisions in a place like Karbala indicates that Iraq also has a growing problem. Computers, car batteries and other equipment are continuously being thrown out with ordinary garbage.

In one television repair shop in western Karbala, about 20 old TV sets are simply piled up in a corner – that is despite the fact that this is one of Karbala’s less affluent areas. In wealthier areas, repair shops have even bigger piles of old televisions.

Stores specialising in computer repairs receive dozens of damaged computers. When the computers cannot be repaired, the store owners remove the parts that might be of use to them and throw the rest of the machine away.

Once thrown into the regular garbage, the electronic parts are then taken to dumps on the outskirts of Karbala. Last year the Karbala authorities commissioned the building of a US$48 million recycling plant on the outskirts of the city – an Iranian firm was commissioned to build it – but as yet, the plant remains unfinished. It would mostly be recycling glass, wood and fertilizers anyway.

One local doctor, Ikhlas al-Obeidi, told NIQASH that she believes most of the people of Karbala are unaware of the toxicity and danger of e-waste. “These kinds of materials could be the cause of the kinds of diseases that seem to be becoming more common in Iraq now, such as nervous and respiratory problems and even diabetes,” she suggests.

A review of all the work on possible health problems caused by e-waste in British medical journal, The Lancet, confirms that e-waste is suspected of causing everything from lung cancer and genetic defects to cardiovascular disease to impaired cognitive function and decreased intelligence in children.

Al-Obeidi believes that there needs to be a nationwide educational campaign started so that locals are more aware of what they are doing when they throw their old mobile phone into the rubbish. As happens in Europe, she also believes that manufacturers of the devices should work together with the owners of the devices to somehow recycle the items.

Of course, many manufacturers already put warnings on their devices saying that the batteries and other components need to be disposed of responsibly because they can pose a risk to health. However in Karbala, as in the rest of Iraq, there really isn’t any option for responsible disposal. The only option open to almost everyone, whether senior politician or student, is to throw them in the garbage.