THEGREENGROK    Statistically Speaking

Is Our E-Waste Harming Children?

by Bill Chameides | August 22nd, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments


With strict electronics recyling laws in only a few states, some of America’s e-waste is finding its way back to its countries of origins to devastating effects.

China has been sending us lead-contaminated toys, but lead contamination from U.S. products may be exacting a far heavier toll on children in China.

Number of recalls of children’s products issued in the U.S. in 2007: 231

Number one reason for children’s product recalls: lead contamination

Principal country of origin of U.S. children’s products contaminated by lead: China

Percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in the United States: 2.2


One of the principal exporters of e-waste to China despite Chinese ban: United States

One of the toxic metals contained in e-waste: lead

City where large volumes of e-waste are disposed: Guiyu, China

Percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in Guiyu, China: 82




2007: The Year of the Recall: An Examination of Children’s Product Recalls in 2007 and the Implications for Child Safety, Kids in Danger, February 2008 –

“Blood Lead Levels in Children In the United States,” –

“Electronic Waste Recycling – Tools for Legislators and Advocates,” Electronics Take-Back Coalition –

Huo, Xia; et al. “Elevated Blood Lead Levels of Children in Guiyu, an Electronic Waste Recycling Town in China,” Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 115, Number 7, July 2007 –

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, “Known and Suspected Routes of E-Waste Dumping” –

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Recalls and Product Safety News”

Weidenhamer, Jeffrey D. and Michael L. Clement. “Leaded Electronic Waste Is a Possible Source Material for Lead-Contaminated Jewelry,” Chemosphere Volume 69, Issue 7, October 2007, Pages 1111-1115



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  1. Adam Minter
    Sep 11, 2008

    I’m sorry that I’m late to this discussion. It’s an important one. Anyway, the Weidenhamer and Clement study is very useful in determining that lead is present in certain toys. But Weidenhamer and Clement admit, in the paper cited, that they don’t know the source of that lead: “The source materials for these jewelry items are unknown … One potential source of scrap lead is the large quantity of e-waste that is exported from the United States to a number of poorer nations, including China.” Potential, not actual. I’m based in Shanghai, where I’ve been covering the Chinese scrap metal trade – including the e-scrap trade – for six years. There’s no question that lead is recycled in an unsafe manner over here, but what is also unquestionable is that the majority of that lead-based scrap is sourced in China – and not the United States. From a rhetorical standpoint, of course, a narrative that blames US consumers for the lead contaminated toys that are shipped back to the US is very powerful. But, like almost anything related to China, the actual story is far more complicated. China is one of the world’s fastest growing consumer electronics markets, and it is already in the process of throwing away – and recycling – it earlier generations of products. You can see the vendors on any street in China, and you can follow those vendors to their environmentally unsound workshops outside of the cities. Organizations like BAN and SVTC like to promote the spurious stat that 70% of US e-waste is exported to China. But the source of this stat – a 2002 report that cites a single informant – is tendentious. In reality, the quantity of e-scrap exported from the US to China has been declining while China’s domestically generated e-scrap has been increasing. In recognition of this fact, last month the China’s State Council passed its first comprehensive legislation on the problem and – long term – things should improve. I debunked the spin on the Weidenhamer study over at my blog, and you can find the text here:” title=”The source of that lead.

    • Erica Rowell
      Sep 11, 2008

      Dr. Chameides responds – Adam, Your points are well-taken. However, I think you have attributed a point of view to us that is not correct. The post was one of our “Statistical Grok’s” where we simply provide the statistics and allow the readers to make their own conclusions. We stand by the #’s but cannot vouch for the conclusions people reach. In this particular case, we are in complete agreement with you. “A narrative that blames US consumers for the lead contaminated toys … is very powerful,” but cannot be substantiated. But that narrative is not in our post. My interpretation of the statistics is that it behooves Americans to recognize the lead contamination in China caused by our exports before we get too indignant over the contaminated stuff that is sent our way. Hence the lead to our post: “China has been sending us lead-contaminated toys, but lead contamination from U.S. products may be exacting a far heavier toll on children in China.” Anyway that’s my interpretation. We go into this detail in our latest post as well: ” title=”

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