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In a small corner of Agbogbloshie at a highly contaminated e-waste dump, workers were introduced to an alternative to burning the plastic coating off wires to get at the valuable copper. Mechanized wire stripping machines safely removed lead-infused plastic coatings from copper wire. While this center was operating, the model e-scrap facility produced an estimated 450 pounds of recycled copper and 40 pounds of aluminum for export in a month.

The recycling facility demonstrated the possibilities: cleaner and economically viable recycling, cooperation among stakeholders in the informal recycling economy, and less exposure to toxic pollution and heavy metals for both the workers and nearby residents. The National Youth Authority, a local government department, provided the land for the pilot project facility, which was created using three 40-foot ISO Intermodal Containers and four mechanized wire-strippers. The Agbogbloshie Scrap Dealers Cooperative, which is owned by GASDA, GreenAd, and the National Youth Authority managed the recycling facility with oversight by the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency.

It is a drop in the bucket, to be sure. Black smoke from burning e-waste still darkens the sky above the Ghanaian scrap yard. But piloting a mechanized wire-stripping facility is a significant step in the right direction. Agbogbloshie, which occupies a 20-acre industrial section of Ghana’s capital Accra, is home to hundreds of informal recyclers who break open used lead-acid batteries and electronic products from computers to telephones to retrieve the valuable metals inside. The vast majority of recyclers, including children, work without protection, breaking apart components with their bare hands and burning plastic coatings infused with lead off copper wires, often over fires fueled by tires, which are, themselves incinerated for the metal bands. The resulting toxic stew of particulate matter, heavy metals, including lead and chemicals, poisons workers and threatens an estimated 50,000 people who live and work nearby. After the valuable metals are stripped away, the remaining broken parts, much of which is contaminated with lead, cadmium and other heavy metals are dumped untreated into unlined pits and waterways. High levels of heavy metal contamination have been found in soil and ash mixtures collected in Agbogbloshie, including arsenic, mercury, and lead at concentrations up to 14,000 ppm

Estimating the Prevalence of Toxic Waste Sites in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Ghanaian Case Study

Using area and population statistics from Ghana Statistical Service, we conducted in-situ searches for sites contaminated with heavy metals within a random sample of administrative districts in Ghana. An extrapolation of possible sites was then calculated to estimate the total number of heavy metals contaminated sites nationwide. This study employed two alternative methodologies to estimate the number of heavy metals contaminated sites in Ghana. Both methods used cluster random sampling principles in determining the estimated number of waste sites. The first methodology estimates that there are 1,561 heavy metals contaminated sites in Ghana (CI: 1,134 to 1,987) while the second estimates 1,944 sites (CI: 812 to 3,075). This is approximately between seven and eleven times the total number of contaminated sites in Ghana previously documented in the TSIP.

Contamination from toxics presents a unique and ongoing problem. Adverse health effects from chemical contamination, through processes such as informal lead-acid battery recycling, natural resource extraction, and electronic waste recovery and waste disposal, often go unnoticed in part due to the latency and chronic nature of environmental toxicants (Lee and Sung-In 2010; Loomis 2015). Limited regulatory policies as well as the ubiquity of small-scale informal practices make identifying active and legacy contaminated sites a challenge for intervening policy and healthcare professionals.

In addition to mercury, other metals, including lead (Pb) cadmium, hexavalent chromium, cobalt and manganese resulting from informal industry can be hazardous to human health. Lead exposure for example can lead to cognitive impairment, anemia, hypertension, kidney damage, and, in extreme cases, death (USEPA 2015). Historically the source of lead exposure is often traced to gasoline, paint, air, water, interior dust, soil and food (WHO 2015). In areas within the vicinity of mining and industrial establishments, ingestion of soil and dust contaminated with heavy metals is a primary source of lead exposure (Lanphear et al. 2013; Kwame Aboh 2013). Lead can also be ingested via drinking water when soluble forms are present in surface or groundwater (ATSDR 2015).

This study used two surrogate methodologies to estimate the total number of heavy metals contaminated waste sites in Ghana. While individual cases of heavy metal polluting industries within Ghana are well documented (e.g. small-scale gold mining and used lead-acid battery recycling), research on the countrywide extent of pollution and potential number of contaminated sites is deficient. Surrogate methods were used due to a lack of resources, limited amount of data, and no clearly appropriate methodology for extrapolating the data to the country. For these reasons, we pursued two methodologies in our extrapolation.

The first method (Regional) estimated the regional number of waste sites first, then summed to find a total in Ghana within a particular confidence interval. The second method (Countrywide) estimated the total number of sites in Ghana, then “allocated” them to each region. Both methods use cluster random sampling analytical principles in determining the estimated number of waste sites. While this methodology is well known, this is the first instance where it is applied to waste site estimation (Bennett et al. 1991).

Our current extrapolation shows that there may be an estimated 1,561 to 1,944 heavy metal contaminated sites in Ghana, excluding mercury-contaminated sites. This is approximately between seven and eleven times the total number of contaminated sites in Ghana previously documented in the TSIP. Such identification of contaminated sites allows health and environmental ministries to better allocate limited resources for improved health surveillance and remediation. However, due to the costly and time-consuming nature of toxic site identification and analysis, contaminated site extrapolations prove to be a valuable tool. The novel and rudimentary statistical approaches utilized in this study can be replicated in other nations to further understand the prevalence of contaminated sites and influence policy accordingly.


Estimates on lead exposures pending additional research.