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Britain dumping Toxic Waste in Ghana

Sat, 8 Aug 2009 Source: Amponsah, John

By John Amponsah

In a recent interesting article on BBC entitled “UK set to take back Brazil Waste”, authorities in Brazil announced that they would be shipping more than 1400 tonnes of illegal toxic waste back to Britain. In another article by the Timesonline, "Britain’s dirty little secret as a dumper of toxic waste", Ghana was mentioned along with Brazil as a dumping ground of toxic waste from Britain. The Timesonline article begins with the following lines:

"Britain was accused yesterday [17/07/09] of dumping toxic household and industrial waste in developing countries on two continents in breach of an international convention [The Basel Convention]. The Government last night was considering tightening the enforcement of rules after the discovery of hazardous medical and electrical waste in Brazil and Ghana."

Toxic Waste Shipments and the Global Economy

It is unlikely that Britain will for instance send its toxic waste to a country like Norway, so one may wonder why Brazil and Ghana have become recipients of Britain's toxic waste? It is perhaps not so difficult to figure out. Due to the emerging global economy, some individuals or interest groups in Britain could find it a lucrative business opportunity to buy unprocessed toxic waste from certain British 'suppliers' and have such toxic waste material dumped in economically developing nations such as Brazil and Ghana, rather than in a country such as Norway or (even better) having such materials processed in Britain. It is likely that a country like Norway has laws as well as adequate enforcement in place to prevent such toxic waste from entering their country, not to mention the possible higher cost involved. Brazil has also shown that it has such laws in place as well as the will to enforce a ban on any illegal shipments of toxic waste into their country, thus causing this embarrassing BBC news feature about toxic waste being sent back to the UK from Brazil.

In the UK, it is illegal to ship toxic waste to other countries the way it has been done to Brazil and to Ghana. British authorities on the BBC news website were quoted as saying:

"We do prosecute people. We've had a number of successful prosecutions in recent years. And in fact in the crown court, people can be fined unlimited amounts and prison sentences are imposed."

It is my view that authorities in Ghana are in a position to strengthen enforcement of Ghanaian laws to bring this toxic waste problem in Ghana under control.

Growing Incidence of Toxic Waste Dumps in Ghana

There seems to be an increasing incidence of electronic toxic waste generated from old electronic equipment no longer needed in some western countries ending up on dumps in Ghana. Such material, not being bio-degradable, must be properly disposed of, by the host country. Recently a number of computer hard drives with sensitive data were purchased by American research students at Tema. These hard drives had been salvaged from waste dumps. One can imagine what kinds of articles end up on such toxic waste dumps. The BBC article (1, below) is quoted as saying that such toxic waste consists of "electrical and medical waste". The toxic waste substances found in the Brazil shipment, according to the BBC article, consisted of:

"Among the materials in the toxic dump sent to Brazil were syringes, condoms and bags of blood."

This kind of material should ideally be disposed of by the host country and not sent abroad, to end up on toxic waste dumps that are frequented by animals and even by destitute children, especially when this can be easily processed by such western countries.

Potential Health Effects Associated with Toxic Waste

Because toxic waste is often generated from highly processed non-bio degradable products, the disposal of this kind of waste must occur using the appropriate scientific means. It costs money and requires expertise. Dumping toxic waste in economically poorer West African countries pollutes the air, the soil as well as water bodies, not to mention direct transmission of pollutants to humans and to animals. Substances like lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals enter water bodies, eventually ending up in the food chain. This is one source of health-related issues. Fumes from toxic waste enter the air, into the respiratory tracts of humans, into the blood, the body's cells and even into the brain. Such toxic materials can affect the nervous system as well.

The Basel and Bamako Conventions on the Flow of Toxic Waste

These two conventions (and a few others) have sought to determine the rules by which toxic waste material flows from more economically developed countries to lesser economically developed ones. The purpose of the Basel convention, which came into effect in 1992, has been to minimize the flow of toxic waste between stronger economies and weaker ones. Ghana has signed both conventions (Basel Convention in 2003, Bamako Convention in 2004). Britain has also signed the Basel Convention, hence (ideally) toxic waste from Britain must be properly handled and not illegally brought into Ghana. The Bamako Convention came about as a result of Basel Convention shortcomings and is specific to African countries. It is a stronger treaty aiming at prohibiting rather than limiting trade (and hence export) of hazardous or toxic waste to Africa.

Ghana Ministry of Environment, Science & Technology: A Call to Action

These recent articles that have appeared in the world media about toxic waste shipments to Ghana are not the first ones to highlight this toxic waste issue. Other news articles have appeared in recent months discussing this very issue. The message is clear: we have a toxic waste problem in Ghana and this issue needs to be addressed, for our own good. It is not enough for the UK authorities to investigate the incidence of British exporters of illegal toxic waste to Ghana: the Ghanaian government must be pro-active and must act as well.

For these reasons, it is my hope that the current Minister of Environment, Science and Technology (MEST), Ms Shirley Ayittey (and her team), will continue to work hard at resolving this issue in order to bring about the proper enforcement needed to control and eventually eradicate the flow of toxic waste into Ghana from abroad. MEST could team up with CEPS (Customs Excise and Preventive Service) and the legal apparatus of Ghana to turn enforcement into a reality. Although we currently have a toxic waste problem in Ghana, this problem can be lessened by preventing more toxic waste shipments from entering the country. It will be well for the government to act in a pro-active way like the Brazilian government has done. Solving this problem will help Ghana move one step further in realizing our sustainable economic development, environmental, and health objectives.

Columnist: Amponsah, John