Radheyshyam wipes his brow and rolls up his sleeves. But his work break at a Mayapuri scrapyard is not to have lunch or coffee. He clenches his left fist and watches the needle as his blood is drawn.
Radheyshyam is being tested for possible health impact of handling e-waste. “We want to see if electronic waste is doing some harm and to prevent it,” said Dr. R. Joshi of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).
TERI is conducting this study in partnership with the Centre of Environmental Health and Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital.
Joshi has also travelled to scrapyards in Mandoli, Shastri Park and Seelampur, where she witnessed women processing waste and where workers complained of burning eyes.
E-waste workers in the informal sector complete tasks such as burning wires, washing circuit boards in acid, using mercury to retrieve gold and breaking cathode ray tubes.
But the traces of gold, silver and copper that recyclers extract come at a cost. Among the elements found in e-waste are lead, cadmium and mercury that can cause medical problems ranging from memory loss to kidney problems, said Ramapati Kumar of Greenpeace India, which issued a report on workplace and environmental contamination of the e-waste industries in India and China in 2005.
Kumar said the work might not seem dangerous to workers whose primary concern is to earn money. “In the informal sector, these people are uneducated,” he said.
While the dangers of exposure to toxic chemicals and heavy metals have been researched, it is harder to identify what the long-term health effects might be, due, in part, to the fact that the industry is not very old.