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December 2010 Issue

Aimin Chen, MD, PhD
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Environmental Health Researcher to Study Effect of 'E-Waste' on Human Health

By Amanda Harper
Published December 2010

Imagine 20 to 50 million tons of cell phones, computers, televisions, printers and other electronic devices piled up in your back yard.


That’s how much electronic waste (e-waste) is produced across the world annually, much of it entering the landfills without regulation and with little regard to its impact on human health.


E-waste is quickly emerging as a global public health threat that—until now—has gone virtually unstudied. It’s the complex mixture of metals—lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)—that concerns scientists. Many of these substances alone cause adverse health effects in humans.


Aimin Chen, MD, PhD, of UC’s environmental health department, recently received a highly competitive $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant to conduct a population-based study aimed at determining how exposure to this complex e-waste toxicant mixture impacts human health. It will be the first major international population study to examine the human developmental effects of complex metal and organic pollutant mixtures found in electronic waste.


UC researchers believe pregnant women—and more specifically their growing fetuses and young children—living in developing countries where primitive and informal e-waste recycling occurs are at increased risk for neurotoxicity.


"Because the brain is in a state of rapid development, the blood-brain barrier in infants and young children is not as effective as in adults, and neurotoxic substances—like heavy metals—can cause developmental damage,” explains Chen.


UC has partnered with Shantou University in China to recruit about 600 pregnant women living in recycling and non-recycling communities in China to track neurological development of the fetus during gestation and through the first year of life. The selected recycling communities have a 15-year history of primitive, informal e-waste recycling activity. Mothers will be asked to give blood, hair and urine samples before 28 weeks of gestation and cord blood upon delivery.  


Chen says universal restrictions on disposal of e-waste do not exist. In the U.S., there are no legally enforceable federal policies to regulate e-waste—only a patchwork of legislation in about half of the states. The European Union has federal legislation restricting e-waste disposal and is putting much of this responsibility on the device manufacturers.


"In countries where primitive recycling processes exist, human health—especially children’s health—should drive regulation and management of recycling activities,” says Chen. "Restricting the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing electronic devices would help prevent exposures. More effective environmental regulations in e-waste management are also critically needed.”


"Exposure to this type of metal mixture and persistent organic pollutants is truly unprecedented,” adds Ho, professor and Jacob G. Schmidlapp Chair of UC’s environmental health department and study collaborator. "We need a better understanding of the human health effects of mixture exposure in order to develop effective measures to protect the people who are most at risk.”

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