Lessons

Toxic Business: Pollution, Industry, and Health in India

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Huge amounts of waste water are channeled from tanneries onto nearby farmland on the outskirts of Kanpur. Laced with highly toxic and acidic chemicals, foam is created when it passes through a small sluice gate, en route to being discharged onto local farmland. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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Chamilal, 55, stands outside his farmhouse in a small village near the city of Kanpur. He is one of many local farmers who suffer from serious skin conditions, believed to have been brought about by contact with toxic waste water from local tanneries. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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Villagers stand among piles of e-waste in the village of Sangrampur, located south of Kolkata in northeast India. Globally, an estimated 50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually, and much of it ends up in countries like India. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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

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A girl walks past the shells of computer monitors that have been stripped of valuable wire and metals, but which can still bring a small payment from a plastics recycler. Many residents in her village, Sangrampur, are involved in the e-waste trade. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2014.

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A tannery worker throws treated leather hides into a pile after coming out of a dyeing container. Workers often labor with little to no protection, even though the water used to treat the hides contains dangerous toxins and chemicals. The waste water runs into local sewers, which enter the nearby Ganges River. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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

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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.

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Breaking Bad: A building stone is a low-tech tool for recovering copper from a smashed-up appliance. The boy will sell the salvaged wire to a buyer in Kolkata's Chandni Chowk electronics district for the equivalent of a few cents. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2014.

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A tannery worker stands barefoot in an area used for collecting dyes and effluent from the leather tanning industry. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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

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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.

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Risk of Contamination: A barefoot child wanders through a workspace where women cut up computer parts and circuit boards, stripping them of metal components that hold tiny bits of value. Such work often takes place in homes, polluting them with lead, arsenic, cadmium, and flame retardants. The substances can slowly build up in the body, disrupting hormone functions and even causing cancer. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2014.

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A child worker trims pieces of leather outside of a tannery in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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Secondhand electronics dealers begin the breakdown process in the Chandi Chowk area. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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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.

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Poisonous Rays: A man totes a cathode-ray tube from a television or a computer monitor through the electronics district in Kolkata. Increasingly obsolete worldwide, cathode-ray tubes contain significant amounts of valuable copper wiring. They must be smashed to access the wiring, releasing a bouquet of poisonous chemicals such as lead, phosphor, and cadmium. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2014.

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A young girl jumps over piles of drying animal hides that have just been treated with a mix of chemicals and dyes. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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

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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.

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Young Trainees: A family member teaches two young children the basics of home-based e-waste recycling in Sangrampur. Such loads of waste are typically trucked in from Kolkata, and recycling activity in the village is overseen by several "bosses" with contacts in the city's larger e-waste industry. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2014.

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Two young men work with leather in a tannery workshop in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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A child walks past a pile of discarded computer monitors in the village of Sangrampur, south of Kolkata. The village's main activity is the breakdown and recycling of many different types of e-waste. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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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.

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Dangerous Byproducts: Three boys stand near a spaghetti-like tangle of insulation stripped from wiring and left on the side of a polluted pond. Careless disposal of the byproducts of recycling allows toxins like flame retardants, lead, mercury, and arsenic to leach into the ground and water, further stressing the natural resources of the heavily populated country. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2014.

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Rakesh, 16, strokes a piece of leather in the factory where he works in Kanpur. He suddenly lost the sight in his left eye as a child and is one of many people in the area suffering from developmental health issues. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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In central Kolkata's AK Steel Market, a worker uses a hammer to break down e-waste. Workers often have little to no safety equipment to protect themselves from the toxic elements released in the recycling process. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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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.

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Workers sort through piles of shoes in a factory in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Most of the leather products produced in Kanpur are destined for markets in the West. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

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An electronics waste recycler handles circuit boards which have been partially dismantled. Lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic elements are released when these electronics are broken down. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

Introduction:

1. Have you ever recycled or thrown out an electronic device such as a computer, cell phone, TV, or anything that has a power cord or batteries?

2. Where do you think those items go and how do you think they are disposed of?

  • Who does the recycling or breakdown of these items?
  • What is the process?
  • Are there any regulations or rules that need to be followed?

3. How about leather? Does anyone own anything made of leather? Do not forget small items such as a watch band or items in your house such as furniture.

  • Where do you think the leather is made?
  • Who makes the leather and how do you think they make it?
  • Are there any regulations or rules that need to be followed?

4. Electronic waste, or e-waste as it is often called, and leather manufacturing might not seem like they are related, but they are significant sources of pollution in India.

Reading:

1. Split the class into two groups.

2, Each group will view and read different stories from the Resource section. One group is the tanneries/leather group and one is the e-waste group. 

3. Based on your group designation, view and read Sean Gallagher's corresponding reporting available in the Resource section.

  • Tanneries/Leather
    • India: The Toxic Price of Leather (article and photos)
    • India: The Toxic Price of Leather (viedo)
  • E-waste
    • India: The Rising Tide of E-Waste
    • Toxic Business: India's Informal E-Waste Recyclers at Risk
    • India's Poor Risk Health to Mine Electronic "E-Waste"

4. As you read, think about the questions from the introduction about who is doing the work, how it is happening, and any regulations or rules.

5. In addition to Sean Gallagher's reporting, each group will identify and read or view at least three stories or reports to learn more about its issue.

  • Try to find a mix of sources. This could include other reporting, academic articles, or reports by government agencies or non-profit groups.
  • If you are having trouble finding material, consult a research librarian at your school or local public library.

Activity:

1. As a group, answer the following questions:

  1. How does the leather industry and e-waste cause pollution in India?
  2. What are the consequences of this pollution?
  3. Who is impacted by these industries and their pollution?
    • What are the health consequences?
  4. Are there any regulations or rules to prevent pollution? Are they being followed?
  5. What role do American consumers play in this story?
  6. How can the Indian government and people address the problem of tannery and e-waste pollution?
  7. What can Americans do to reduce the risk of tannery and ewaste pollution in India?

2. Design a presentation for high school students that incorporates your answers to these questions.

  1. The presentations should be no more than 20 minutes long.
  2. Incorporate Sean Gallagher's photos and videos into the visuals for your report. Make sure to include proper citation for any images, video, or quotes that you use in your presentation.
  3. Make sure that you make your presentation engaging. Think about the things that you like from your instructors' presentations in class and how you can use those techniques in your presentation. Some basic tips include:
    • Keep it simple
    • Do not read from your slides; maintain eye contact with the audience
    • Minimize the amount of text on slides
  4. In class show your presentation to your classmates from the other group and your instructor.
  5. After the presentation is finished, open the floor to questions.

Extension Activity:

1. Both groups work together to combine their two presentations into one 20-minute presentation that addresses both tannery and e-waste pollution.

2. Find another class or local high school willing to allow you all to present during a class period or assembly.

3. Present the combined presentation to students and answer their questions about the topic.

Educator Notes: 

If the class is too large to split into just two groups, divide the class into more groups as long as it is a multiple of two so there is an even number of tannery and e-waste groups.

The lesson activity is designed to promote research and presentation skills. Each student in the group should participate in every step, including conducting research and communicating during the group presentation.

You may want to require each group to submit an annotated bibliography of their extra reading and presentation sources.

When grading the presentations, grade for both the content and style of the presentation.

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