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EPA Lax on E-Waste Exports: GAO Report

India West, News Report, Sunita Sohrabji Posted: Oct 17, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency is doing little to stem the export of electronic waste to India, China and Nigeria, where disposal practices of the toxic materials endanger public health and environment in those countries, concluded the General Accounting Office in a recent report.

The GAO delivered its findings Sept. 18 to the House Subcomittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment, a standing subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The report was commissioned by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif.

The U.S. dumps more than 150,000 tons of electronic waste in India every year (I-W, Aug. 1). Laborers including children - who dismantle the products by hand, are exposed to a variety of noxious and carcinogenic substances, including lead, mercury, cadmium and dioxin.

Sulphuric and nitric acid baths, used in India to extract gold from circuit boards, are dumped into local rivers once the metal has been extracted.

Computers, monitors, circuit boards, televisions and cell phones are among the materials most often sent abroad for recycling, usually by municipalities who have collected the e-waste, as it is commonly known, at local recycling drives.

India has banned the import of e-wastes with hazardous waste rules created in 1989, which require prior approval from the Ministry of Environments and Forests. U.S. exporters are able to circumvent such laws by declaring the materials donations for schools and non-profit organizations in India. India weakened its existing laws last November by redefining hazardous waste and permitted materials, which now include biomedical waste.

The EPAs only rule for e-waste regulates cathode ray tubes, from televisions and computer monitors, which contain lead, a known toxin. But even the CRT rule is often circumvented, said the GAO, reporting the results of its investigation in which GAO agents posed as foreign buyers and found 43 U.S. companies willing to export CRTs in violation of the EPAs rules.

The EPA has done little to ascertain the extent of noncompliance and EPA officials told us that they have neither plans nor a timetable to develop an enforcement program, noted the report.

The GAO recommends that the EPA expand its hazardous waste regulations to cover other used electronics and work with Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to improve identification and tracking of exported e-waste.

The GAO also recommended that the U.S. sign the Basel Convention, a landmark decision to ban the export of hazardous waste from rich to poorer countries. The U.S. is the only developed country that has not ratified the 1994 treaty.

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