If there's one upheaval that's had the biggest global impact over the past two decades, it's the technology revolution. Driven by more efficient, smaller and cheaper microchips, technology has wowed the world and changed everyone's lives. But a dangerous new waste stream, electronic waste, is growing alongside the proliferation of electronic products.

Environmentalists say that besides global warming, electronic waste, or "e-waste," is the most threatening environmental problem in the world today. Mounting global sales of electrical and electronic products are generating an equally imposing amount of toxic waste that's too complicated to process.

Although the exact amount is unknown, the United Nations estimates roughly 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated worldwide each year, constituting more than 5 percent of all municipal solid waste. Alarmingly an estimated 70 percent of e-waste is illegally dumped or crudely processed in poorer Asian and African countries, where workers in e-waste scrap yards are constantly exposed to toxic chemical byproducts of deconstructing components. These chemicals also pollute water, soil and air.

Poorer countries in Asia, such as India, Vietnam, the Philippines and some impoverished regions in China, have become dumping grounds for e-waste. What's even more startling is rich countries, such as the United States, Canada and some European Union (EU) countries - the world's largest e-waste generators - have adopted only small or halfhearted measures to deal with this looming problem. Critics say the United States and Canada have taken woefully inadequate steps to stop e-waste dumping in developing and poor countries where import laws are full of loopholes. While other developed countries in the EU and Japan impose restrictions on e-waste exports and mandate that manufacturers take back their end-of-life products, critics claim there's no monitoring or enforcement of those rules.

"The issue of exporting [hazardous e-waste by] countries like the USA and Canada has not been resolved yet," said Ibrahim Shafii, scientific and technical program officer for the Secretariat of the Basel Convention, the most comprehensive global-environmental agreement on hazardous wastes. The convention controls transboundary movements of hazardous waste and its disposal.

"The USA and Canada are still exporting computer waste to other developing countries because under the laws of these countries, discarded computers and mobile phones are not considered as wastes and therefore they are not controlled," said Shafii.

The Basel Action Network (BAN), which seeks to ensure Basel Convention norms are followed, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition are two U.S.-based environmental organizations that have been trumpeting the e-waste problem in reports such as Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, published in 2002. "Rather than having to face the problem squarely," the report stated, "the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world's electronic products and generate most of the e-waste have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve - exporting the e-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia."

Indeed, to get a sense of the magnitude of the high-tech revolution's dirty little secret, all you need to do is peek in the narrow lanes of east Delhi, or visit districts in Guiyu, Nanyang and Taizhou in China, or the Sher Khan Market in Karachi, Pakistan. Small boys, young women and even grown men can be found tearing apart personal computers, monitors and other electronic hardware with their bare hands and sifting through the components. The reusable parts are separated out for use in refurbished electronics products, and the rest is sorted to extract glass from the cathode-ray tubes, and valuable gold and silver traces.

The remaining waste is broken down and incinerated in huge cauldrons filled with acids that spew foul smoke. Whatever can't be incinerated is broken down, hammered and dumped in the nearest sewer or garbage bin. From there, it goes to landfills. For doing this

dirty work, adult male laborers are paid at most $3 a day in U.S. currency, and wages are even lower for women and children.

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Indrajit Basu Indrajit Basu  |  Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.