E-Waste Tragedy 8: Four Questions on Top 10 Pollution (Blacksmith Institute, Jack Caravanos)

The Tragedy of Agbogbloshie, the scrap neighborhood of Accra, Ghana, has been a "scene of the crime" which Joe Benson is in prison for.  Among the most credible sources for Benson's crime suspicions came a year ago this month, via Scientific American.  Ghana is not more polluted than any other emerging urban city.   So why, in 2014, is Ghana the  butt of the Scientific American headline?

"E-Waste Dump among Top 10 Most Polluted Sites

A list of the 10 most polluted places on Earth ranges from nuclear sites to e-waste dumps  

Dec 17, 2013 |By David Biello

Searching for #PovertyPorn
Is this the truth?  Is this metal scrapyard in Accra, Ghana, among, close to, remotely, being one of the ten most polluted sites on earth?   Scientific American is important and credible, as is the original source - Blacksmith Institute.

No.  Accra's scrapyard doesn't compare to Chernobyl or mining hotspots like Kabwe or OK Tedi.  It's not pretty, but it is pretty similar to dozens of other auto scrapyards in Guangzhou, Mumbai, Detroit, Jakarta, Rio, etc.

How did the headline above place Accra's automobile, white goods, and electronics scrapyard - and only their scrapyard - on a list with Chernobyl, Ukraine, Kabwe, Zambia, and other mining, smelting, nuclear and petroleum disasters?

In this blog, I'll show you where the research by Blacksmith Institute, behind this headline, was accurate and plentiful.   Unfortunately, one tragic citation led to false arrests, collateral damage, and potentially tarnished the brand of a really fine organization.  As Dr. Josh Lepawsky has described in "Mapping E-waste as a Controversy:  From Statements to Debates II", there has been a pollution of non-peer-reviewed "data" in the discussion of export policy.  It will lead to the end of "top ten" lists from Blacksmith Institute.  

Definition of PRIMUM NON NOCERE:  the first thing (is) to do no harm

The tragedy is the amount of solid effort which Jack Caravanos of CUNY put into the Blacksmith Institute research.   He visited Agbogbloshie, photographed it, interviewed the people, and even helped win a project (with Swiss funding) to "clean up" the operations with a heroic MakerSpace effort described at http://qamp.net/   And apparently, just as quickly, the European project at Agbobloshie, the $85,000, went to waste.  I cannot speculate whether it was from the lack of buy-in, or what.  But as I told @RecyHub (who was on the ground for the project), giving that money to a Fixer / Importer like Wahab, Emmanuel, Hamdy, Souleymane, Miguel, or Joe Benson would have been a better bet.

Hard to recruit people when they're in jail.   And that's the tragedy here... Blacksmith meant well.  I don't think they intended to enter Agbogbloshie with a #saviorcomplex, on an Ego-Eco-Safari.   But they produced one of the most thorough, impressive pieces of research, and then embellished it with the label of Most Toxic Place on Earth, and on page One, #FRAMED Joe Benson of #WasteCrime.

One single piece of bad data may destroy our confidence in the top ten lists...  I found it.  It's just one minor assumption, properly footnoted.  And it took Scientific American down with it.

Tragic Fame.

For some time, I'd been trying to find out exactly how this "ranking" of hundreds and thousands of polluted sites occurs.   How is the lead mine pile in Kabwe, Africa being compared to leather tanneries in Bangladesh (or Guiyu, China)?  Is the "threat" measured by toxicity per square meter, or by type of toxic, or by the number of people exposed?  There should be a methodology to ranking.

  • The Top 10 Toxic Threats (per Blacksmith Institute)
  • Agbogbloshie, Ghana   E-waste 
  • Chernobyl, Ukraine  Nuclear accident
  • Citarum River Basin, Indonesia  Industrial and domestic pollution 
  • Dzerzhinsk, Russia  Chemical manufacturing
  • Hazaribagh, Bangladesh  Tanneries 
  • Kabwe, Zambia   Lead mining
  • Kalimantan, Indonesia  Gold mining
  • Matanza Riachuelo, Argentina  Industrial pollution
  • Niger River Delta, Nigeria  Oil spills
  • Noril'sk, Russia   Mining and smelting

Technically, Agbogbloshie leads the list because it starts with "A".  GhanaWeb could be forgiven for mistaking the alphabetical order for ranking.    But Blacksmith is definitely claiming that out of thousands of mining, dumping, and scrap processing sites, Accra's auto scrap yard is in the top 10.

Scientific American's article from December 2013 implies there is a careful process of rank evaluation.
"The Blacksmith Institute, along with Green Cross Switzerland, compiled the new rankings after surveying more than 2,000 sites in 49 countries. The organizations estimate that toxic pollution threatens the health of more than 200 million people in the developing world." - Scientific American
There are mining spills, mercury-contaminated federal arms sites, uranium mines to compete with.   A science and engineering NGO like Blacksmith Institute, which makes every effort to distinguish itself as a science-based environmental think tank, carries a lot of weight.   Blacksmith made 2014 the year that "e-waste" in Accra, Ghana, would gain a notoriety which Basel Action Network and Greenpeace could never, on their own, bestow.   Six months after publication, Joe Benson of BJ Electronics was locked in a British prison cell.

One toxic footnote.

Blacksmith Institute's go to guy is Jack Caravanos of CUNY.   When I called and spoke to Blacksmith earlier this week, Dr. Caravanos's research was the anchor.   Professor Caravanos has built a considerable reputation for his Department at CUNY, and for Blackstone.   He's currently studying Kabwe in Zambia, Africa, the leaded ore mining city (which would certainly be on my ballot of "Worst Places").

Caravanos published two articles on Agbogbloshie, Ghana, in support of its rank as one of the worst places on planet earth.   I don't have time to go into the reports in detail, and don't have expertise or desire to debate Caravanos on his strongest suit.
Caravanos et al (2013) Exploratory Health Assessment of Chemical Exposures at e-waste recycling and scrapyard facility in Ghana (Blacksmith Institute Journal of Health and Pollution Vol 3, No 4, January 2013. 

Caravanos et al. (2011) - Assessing Worker and Environmental Chemical Exposure Risks at an e-waste recycling and disposal site in Accra, Ghana (Blacksmith Institute Journal of Health and Pollution Vol 1, No 1, February 2011.
I agree with 90% of the research.  But the introduction!  Out of the gate, Caravanos declares the crime scene to be the product of exporters like Joe Benson.   Joe Benson's an admitted exporter, and Caravanos, on page 1, says that 75% of the exports by people like Benson are sham recycling, exposing a loophole in Basel, and deserve the blame for the site he measures.

False accusation, relayed from Greenpeace, sourced from BAN.   Wrong.

Caravanos' footnote is to a paper which in turn footnotes Jim Puckett's false, fake, abandoned hoax statistic (see Tragedy 2).   It's like the best Law and Order forensic lab technician leaps out of character and, after describing boot prints and blood types and DNA, goes on to announce (repeat speculation) of motive, opportunity, and means.  He's wearing a lab coat, and he has chemistry evidence, but the whodunnit is coming from hearsay.  No.  Benson is innocent, and you have one little footnote that you've accidentally given scientific credence... which the source itself does not claim (and now distances itself afar of).

A great chemist normally doesn't mix the chemistry results with third party gossip over motives. If he does, and creates a titillating "ranking" press release, he could wind up in Scientific American...   And/Or in the Good Point Ideas blog.

Here's the ifixit/goodpointideas teardown.

1.  We grant it's bad.   Something must be done.

Let's grant Caravanos the premise that people working in the scrapyard (which manages mostly automobile and white goods waste) have serious health concerns.   The major contributions he has made are to take blood and urine and soil samples and assess them for toxics.   We have had a gut feeling that the images of kids pushing burning wires around with sticks was not a good thing, and I'll grant Caravanos science that he documented it.

Let's grant that we don't want our teenage sons and daughters burning wire in Agbogbloshie, especially if there's a school or better job available.

2.  We ask about the methodology of the "Top 10" ranking.   

How the tests he performed establish the difference between the "Top Ten" most toxic (or most exotic?), and the next 1,990 runners up, isn't clear.   There are baselines for "healthy" and "EPA limits" which are crossed, but I'd expect to see a comparison chart.   How does the arsenic showing in urine levels compare, site by site?   We could see how Ghana fares compared not just to the other 9 sites, but to sites with better results, and understand why Accra and not Foshan, or Kinshasa, or Detroit or Torreon deserves the Scientific American headline.

Then we could ask other methodology questions.
  • Are similar auto scrap yards compared, and are lead and copper mines and smelters compared to other lead and copper smelting sites?
  • And how many lead mining sites does Blacksmith compare to how many scrap sites?
  • Are the soil samples given more weight when the population of exposed people is greater?  Or younger?
  • What's upstream?  What are other proximate causes?  
In Guiyu, that last question would have led to the documentation of the textile mills and tanneries which employ most of the people in that district... something I discovered by comparing BAN's "Exporting Harm" water samples online, and finding the Louhajong River tests with very similar results.  Adam Minter later visited Guiyu and confirmed many textile mills upstream of Guiyu... something Greenpeace less than ironically ran with as "dirty laundry".)

The problems with college and university ranking methodology (e.g. US News and World Report) are widely discussed in academic circles (also less than ironically).  USNWR has been accused of deliberately "reshaking" the weight it assigns class size, faculty degrees, costs, etc. just to create a sense of suspense.  The ranking changes every year, giving USN and WR annual rankings more relevance.

It was just a matter of time before Blacksmith's lists got held to the same scrutiny, and when an innocent African television repairman gets put in UK jail 6 months later, that time may have come.

3.  We question specific claims of causality....

The question of "upstream" sources runs even deeper, when correlation equates to causality, which equate to Guidelines, which equate to racial profiling.

Caravanos, deep in the paper, acknowledges that he cannot determine where arsenic in urine actually came from, he can only document it's disturbingly high.  As Adam Minter and Greenpeace have pointed out, the textile dying industry in Guiyu (E-Stork Series, "Where Poisoned E-waste Babies Come From") is more closely associated with the river water samples than e-scrap.   Arsenic is almost a tag to trigger suspicion that "something else is going on", such as copper mining, or C&D debris, because arsenic isn't related to e-scrap or e-waste.  To Caravanos credit, he keeps an appropriate distance from making the claim that the e-waste was the direct cause of the lead in the soil.  But evidently he didn't call David Biello at Scientific American, so I have to.

Even if "e-waste" has toxics, are electronics imports the cause of the toxics documented?  And even if they are - this is key - are recent imports the cause of the waste electronics?  India, as a control group, has almost no imports of used electronics, but would probably  be on a Blacksmith map of "informal sector" e-waste lists.

George Walker Bush Motorway, Ghana Morning Commute
Most of the activity at Agbogbloshie is AUTOMOBILE scrapping.  Accra and Lagos have TONS AND TONS of scrap automobiles.  Freon, motor oil, insulation, gas and diesel.

Does anyone think that the automobile scrap in Agbogbloshie is imported from western nations?

Used autos are, for sure.   But everyone knows that the vehicles are maintained and kept running for a decade after they are imported... no one is claiming that 75% of used auto imports "very quickly" go to Agbogbloshie, or that there's any "dirty little secret" about A-Waste.

For some reason, however, the e-junk in the photos is assumed to be recently imported, while the auto scrap is not.   Why?  The question leads us to the 4th point about Jack Caravanos articles, published by Blacksmith Institute.

4.  Repeating proven falsehoods.

Caravonos repeats, and offers Blackstone Institute's credit, for disproven, false, discredited stats.  Here are quotes from the two papers, and links to the "sources".
"It is estimated that globally 20-50 million tons of e-waste is generated per year, representing 1-3% of the world's municipal waste."  
Here are the problems that make the Geeks of Color wince, quotations taken directly from Blacksmith Institute Journal of Health and Pollution, Vol. 1 no. 1, Feb 2011.
"As stated in a study on e-waste recycling and disposal by Brigden, Labunska, Santillo and Johnston as much as 75% of items produced in the EU and 80% in the US go unaccounted.... Companies use a loophole in the [Basel Convention] treaty that allows for the shipment of second-hand donations as a way to also ship unusable items that will end up in landfills or scrap yards, accounting for 75% of what is shipped."
Both of these citations come into the respected Blacksmith Institute Journal of Health and Pollution, to no doubt be cited again in many university research papers.   Brigden, Labunska, Santillo and Johnson publish... For Greenpeace.   That's the same NGO which planted the geographic tracking device in a television donated to Joe Benson, after (gasp) "cutting a wire".

The source of Bridgen et. al. data?  Go back to E-Waste Tragedy 2, the Non-Profit Sanctimony Source Code.

Distributed on BAN letterhead at Basel Convention meeting COP8

For all its contributions in chemical analysis, mapping, and science, the opening page of the Blacksmith Institute journal is, in effect, laundering bad data.   Jim Puckett has denied ever even saying it, claiming recently that the only time he estimated these numbers was in 2002's Exporting Harm (China).  You remember... NEVER has BAN ever stated... published here 18 months ago, and still never explained.   Jack Caravanos and Rich Fuller should be aware that many people will only read the introduction, and the paper definitely represents the 75% waste as true.

"Despite your reading diligence however, it is unfortunate that you did not start by questioning the baseless assertions made by Adam Minter in his reckless article.   Never has BAN ever stated that 80% of US e-waste is exported."  (-Bloomberg News)
In July 2013, in one of the most read blogs of the past 5 years, Basel Action Network went to pains to accept the 2011 studies that showed definitively that - like automobiles - most of the used electronics paid for and imported were done so by Africans, not by westerners, that most of what they purchased was working and repairable, and that (like autos) most of the scrap observed in Agbogbloshie had been used for more than a decade before it was discarded.  By definition, that is domestically generated e-waste, no more "imported" than the cars in USA scrap yards were dumped by Toyota and Honda. BAN accepted they were wrong, but didn't change their claims.

BAN moved the headstones, but they didn't move the graves.  And the "ewaste hoax" statistics now haunt the institute, and Scientific American.

Any credible engineer or scientist can trace the footnotes to the letterhead claim to the disavowal.  But unfortunately, via Blacksmith's Rich Fuller blog, Caravanos doubled his bet.  The guest blog by Caravanos states rather definitively that "all the reports we may have read about this place are true."  He has cited the Greenpeace report, which cites the BAN "exhaustive study", so he has to be aware of the allegations against the import-export trade.
I recently returned from the notorious Agbogbloshie recyclers market in Central Accra and all the reports you may have read about this place is true. Where else in the world can you find people dismantling computers, automobile engines, refrigerators and the like mixed in with a wholesale vegetable market, dozens of food vendors, a large mosque and the infamous copper wire burning site, which produces large volumes of toxic black smoke that lingers in the air all day. All this happening in what appears to be a random, chaotic structure (while there are no streets, vendor signs or directory, it is actually quite well organized and profitable to the vendors.)   - Jack Caravanos
No.  They are not all true.  Tragic.

Joe Benson never went to primary or secondary school.  But he is self made successful businessman, a TV repairman who is the reason that 6.9 million households in Nigeria could watch the World Cup and the Africa Cup and participate in democratic debate in 2006.  He's in a tough spot if it's his word against CUNY and the Blacksmith Institute's Journal of Health and Pollution.  But I'd take his side over BAN and Greenpeace, who profit directly from the exaggeration and then move on to the next "cause" (piles of never-exported CRT glass, or dirty laundry from upstream textile mills).   Blacksmith Institute is supposed to be different.

Blackstone Institute has a professional website, and a healthy budget, and impressive staff.   If I'm not jealous, as founder of WR3A.org, I should be.  Fuller's credentials appear impeccable, and I've got no agenda suggesting we question them.   The E-Waste Tragedy, in my opinion, is the number of creditworthy do-gooders and agents of conscience who have been sucked into the black hole of E-Waste Fatwah.   I'd kill to have the grant they got to establish the Maker Fair project in Ghana!   I had to do Retroworks de Mexico with nothing but credit cards.

So I'm here to help the Joe Benson's of the world debate their case.   There has been a stampede of profiling, resulting in Environmental Injustice.  The tinkerers, fixers, and geeks of color have enough problems fighting planned obsolescence and sham exporters, and environmentalists need to polish their rifle sites and lay off the friendly fire.   This was a decade of environmental malpractice, and by writing this, I hope to get Blacksmith Institute to use its amazing intellectual assets to pursue it.

The very photographic evidence in Caravanos papers and the Blacksmith's blog, which shows poor people scrapping, is incontrovertible proof that this site cannot possibly be managing anything close to the the 20-50 million tons generated in the Blacksmith Institute article by Caravanos.  Caravanos paper shows satellite imagery mapping the site, and you couldn't park Sims or ERI trucks there.  Its clearly a bottleneck which no one would expect could manage a significant quantity of Earth's e-scrap if we weren't distracted by photos of little black kids with wires on their heads.

Moreover, if Caravanos has read the UN source reports, he knows that the 50 million tons are arrived at by calculating the generation of emerging cities like Accra.     The main question we have is where else is Ghana managing its scrap, because Agobogbloshie cannot even account for the generation of 24 million people who live in Ghana.  I have more truckloads of "e-waste" arriving at my plant in rural Middlebury Vermont every day than we see in the Agbogbloshie films!

Economically, it's impossible to pay for 75% junk with the scrap and 25% reuse, as alleged.   And Benson can recycle junk for free in the UK, he has no incentive to load a bad item on a container at all.  The theory of motive is a total fail.

Is it needlessly antagonistic to call "ENVIRONMENTAL MALPRACTICE" on Scientific American's coverage of Blacksmith Institute's "Top Ten" list?  From my perspective, we challenged these reports in 2009 and 2010 when they came out.   A guy's in jail and it could go viral... and if Fuller and Caravanos are reading this, I believe they are smart enough to change bandwagons.  Engage us, find out what's going on, and help us get a debate about the #FreeHurricaneBenson petition.

The e-waste tragedy is Collateral Damage.   BAN.org makes up a figure to make its cause seem more urgent, Greenpeace repeats it, and Joe Benson winds up in jail, and really cool organizations like Blacksmith Institute wind up discredited, or forced to avoid interviews.

Mike Daisy.  Fuller and Caravanos need to take their cue from Ira Glass, This American Life, and get in front of this imprisonment.  Sign the #FREEJOEBENSON petition.   Come out ahead, guys. Hopefully, Rich Fuller takes my blog as friendly advice.  I don't want them to lose scholars, job applicants, or donors.  (I gave them 24 hours advance access to this blog, would have offered longer if I asked).

As you may have seen on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart over the past few days, Africa has highways.   Trevor Noah, a new comic newscaster on the program from South Africa, made his debut with "Spot the Africa", taking on #povertyporn and #whitesaviorcomplex stereotypes.  For a lot of Americans, Noah says, Africa is one giant village full of "AIDS, huts, and starving children, who you can save for just 5 cents per day."

Rich Fuller, Jim Puckett, Steve D'Esposito, Shiela Davis, Ted Smith ... there are a whole bunch of us who were environmental activists in the 1980s, who have made a career out of trying to do what we desperately want to do... make human consumption of earths resources more sustainable.

We must learn the lessons of past do gooders.  The church.   Western medicine.   Police power.

We imagine ourselves immune at our peril.  And the collateral damage is ours.   Joe Benson does NOT belong in prison, StEP damages itself by defending his prison sentence, Caravanos means well but damages Blacksmith Institute by repeating the hoax statistics (in an otherwise apparently well-researched report).  USA generators of working display devices and computers opt to send them to shredders, and to boycott the geeks of color.   We are boycotting the very, very, very best jobs that the emerging markets have.

The blog's too long already, and I haven't really given credit to the importance of the blood analysis, urine analysis, and soil tests Caravanos and Blacksmith Institute performed.   I hope they understand that, had Joe Benson not been clanged into a jail cell [Op-Ed], the dialogue would be different.

Africa has a lot of real, real problems, and we don't need fake ones distracting our attention.   None of us want the progress of emerging urban markets to take our minds off of the need for progress, especially in agriculture, women's equality, and democratic reforms.

As many said about Mike Daisy's impassioned falsehoods about Foxconn (maker of IPhones) in China, China has enough real problems that it certainly doesn't need Europeans and Americans making up fake problems on their behalf.   And that goes for Africa, too.  I first listened to the NPR This American Life Foxconn story in a rental car with Josh Lepawsky and Chris McNabb, on the evening drive back across the Arizona desert, near Tombstone, as we made our way back from their first visit to Retroworks de Mexico... my own @AMP effort.   We're all on the same side here.

Useless lists of jobs beneath wealthy people.
Robin Ingenthron:  Normal Curve of Risky Jobs in OECD, Emerging, and Poorest Geographies

Environmental science research papers are ringing.  They want their credibility back.

No comments: