Toxic Business: India's Informal E-Waste Recyclers at Risk

A woman sorts e-waste as her child stands nearby in the village of Sangrampur. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

Stacked haphazardly in Sangrampur are piles of electronics, mostly composed of dark green circuit boards. Globally, an estimated 50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually, with residents of the U.S. and the U.K. generating some of the highest rates worldwide. For its part, India generates almost 2.7 million tons of electronic waste each year, said Toxics Link's Priti Mahesh, who cited recent studies. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

A man holds a collection of transistors. Metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic are all present in e-waste. Workers spend endless days exposed to dangerous levels of toxic elements with little to no protection while breaking electronics down by hand. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

Children are particularly susceptible to exposure to toxic metals, but the long-term effects of this are still to be seen in this community and many others like it across the country. Likewise, the impact of the slow accumulation of toxins in the water and soil, released during the recycling process, is yet to be seen. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

A young girl walks barefoot over e-waste that her family is breaking down for recycling in Sangrampur. Toxic elements are released in the process and people often have little to no safety equipment to protect themselves. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

And the burgeoning industry doesn't take place in a vacuum: Electronic recycling centers can be found close to people's homes. "This work happens within community areas or within residential areas, so that entire families are exposed to the toxic elements," said Priti Mahesh, of Toxics Link. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

A hammer or chisel is often the tool of choice by recyclers. In this instance, a child in Chandni Chowk used a brick to break down the e-waste. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

On the busy streets of Chandni Chowk, in the heart of Kolkata, second-hand e-waste salesman operate out of small stalls and tiny rooms squeezed in between the narrow alleyways. Some of the operators want to make the transition from informal to formal, government-approved recycling. But making that change is difficult. National regulations have laid out stringent requirements for those who wish to formalize their business, and startup costs of more than $15,000 are proving to be prohibitively expensive. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

A worker at the Chandni Chowk second hand electronics market carries a computer monitor which will later be broken down and recycled. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

Three boys stand near e-waste discarded at the side of a small pond in Sangrampur. As electronic waste is broken down, harmful elements such as mercury, lead and arsenic leach into the soil and water resulting in the long-term poisoning of local resources. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

Second-hand electronics dealers collect old computer monitors in the Chandni Chowk market in central Kolkata. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

A villager in Sangrampur breaks down and sorts through various types of e-waste. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

As a hammer bears down on another circuit board in a recycling market in central Kolkata, it releases a puff of dust, inevitably laden with toxic elements. The slow poisoning of the local people and environment continues. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

In the Indian village of Sangrampur, located 30 miles south of Kolkata, the sound of frogs croaking in a nearby pond clash with the noises of hammering and plastics cracking.

As developed countries dump their e-waste in India, an informal industry of recyclers has emerged. In places such as Sangrampur, it's common to find women, young men and children picking away at piles of electronics, breaking them down into increasingly smaller pieces that are then separated and collected.

But as the villagers spend their days dismantling by hand devices that contain toxic materials, there's a growing concern about the long-term health effects on the workers.

"I think in another 10 years we will see the health problems actually coming to the front," said Priti Mahesh, a senior program coordinator for Toxics Link, an organization that focuses on toxic waste issues in India. She said the amount of waste is only going to increase, and that now "is the right time to put a stop to it."