Workers Health & Safety Centre

Researchers raise concerns for worker health in Ontario’s e-waste sector

Ontario workers dismantling televisions, cell phones, printers and other electronic devices are being exposed to harmful flame retardant chemicals (FR), a recent study finds.
“We know from other studies these chemicals have been associated with endocrine disruption, neurological impacts, reproductive effects, even cancer,” says Dr. Victoria Arrandale, scientist with Toronto-based Occupational Cancer Research Centre and part of a team of researchers looking into FR exposure levels at an Ontario e-waste facility.
“The exposure levels we found were surprising and should be cause for further investigation across the sector,” adds Arrandale.
To date, much of the attention in terms of health impacts of FRs have focused on children. And although exposures in e-waste facilities have been studied elsewhere, this yet to be published study is believed to be the first to explore the issue of harmful FR chemicals in an Ontario e-waste dismantling facility.  
Flame retardant chemicals are added to a range of products, including electronics and electrical devices to decrease their ability to ignite. Unfortunately, these harmful chemicals constantly migrate from these products into the air and also bond to dust that is readily inhaled. They can be found too on other surfaces, leading to exposure through skin contact and ingestion.

Significant exposures

Dr. Arrandale and other researchers measured the levels of two broad classes of FRs in the e-waste dismantling facility—halogenated FRs and organophosphate ester FRs. Bulk dust and air samples were gathered from central locations, floors, workstations and sorted waste bins. All samples were found to contain high levels of both classes of FRs. In fact, in some cases the findings were many times higher than levels reported in other studies involving e-waste facilities in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Sweden and Finland.
Dr. Arrandale shared these preliminary results at an event hosted by Toronto’s Institute for Work and Health. There she also discussed the health effects of other hazards in e-waste facilities, including heavy metals, noise, vibration and ergonomic concerns, along with the need to improve workplace prevention practices.

Inadequate controls

Canada’s attempts to regulate FRs are viewed by many as ineffective. FRs are also not specifically regulated in Ontario. Just the same, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act employers must take every reasonable precaution to protect workers. This includes adequate general and local exhaust ventilation and proper housekeeping. Ontario law also acknowledges personal protective equipment should be used only in special circumstances or as a control of last resort.
According to Dr. Arrandale however, only dust masks and gloves were available to the workers in the studied facility; local exhaust ventilation was nowhere to be seen. Following her IWH presentation Dr. Arrandale again addressed the need for e-waste employers to meet their legal obligations to protect workers during an interview on TVO’s current affairs program, The Agenda. She also suggested overall awareness about hazardous exposures may be lacking in e-waste facilities. In which case, the employer’s legal training obligations are also not being met.

E-waste growth

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream worldwide. Here in Canada, researchers found each of us discarded in excess of 20 kilograms in 2014 (and it is expected our discarding will continue to grow). Until recently, this toxic trash was shipped offshore.  Now Ontario regulation requires product stewardship for designated electrical and electronic products and bans exports of e-waste to developing nations. This change has triggered a growing domestic recycling sector overseen by the industry-led Ontario Electronic Stewardship (OES).
According to the OES, they are “committed to ensuring that end-of-life electronics collected through its program are recycled in a manner that protects the environment as well as worker health and safety.”

Certainly, the preliminary results and observations pertaining to control measures from this recent study, raises questions whether enough is being done to protect the industry’s workers.  

WHSC can help

Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) offers a number of training programs and resources to help workplaces better understand their legal duties and responsibilities related to workplace hazards, including flame retardants. Many of these same programs offer essential insight into the prevention efforts needed to protect workers. WHSC Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) training is one such program.
To learn more:
Call:    1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a training services representative