The dark side of the digital age: impact of e-waste

24 July 2017

A series of research done by Professor Wong Ming Hung (Croucher Croucher Senior Research Fellowship 1997) at Taizhou region of Zhejiang province, an e-waste processing site, found that breast milk from mothers living in the area contain high concentration of dioxin.

Professor Wong Ming Hung (Croucher Croucher Senior Research Fellowship 1997) currently serves as the Advisor and Research Chair Professor of Science and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong and is also an Emeritus Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. Having published hundreds of papers for respected scientific journals, he is internationally acclaimed as an authority on research into the effect of contaminants on human health and the environment. 

Most recently, he has contributed to research into controversial issues such as the relationship between certain chemicals and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and the potential health risks associated with the processing of e-waste. He has served the academic community in an advisory capacity for many years and continues to devote his time and energy to the education of young scientists around the world.

Environmental Contaminants and Human Health – Keeping His Finger on the Pulse

From the early days of his career, Professor Wong Ming Hung has always been intrigued by the effect of heavy metals and other chemicals on the human body and the environment. In the early 1970’s, for example, Professor Wong was one of the first to use an Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer (AAS) to study the concentrations of heavy metals in the environment and the possible links to illness and disease. This area of study still very much intrigues him and continues to be the motivational force behind his insightful research. He relates, “From that time, I have always kept track of specific pollutants and the latest research concerning their use and effects on human health – I find it exciting.”

Recently, Wong and his team conducted a literature review that delved into the potential links between certain chemicals, such as DDT, PBDEs, PCBs, BPA and phthalates as well as heavy metals, and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). ASDs are prevalent among children all over the world and the number of children being diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum is increasing at an alarming rate. However, little is known about the exact cause. Given the many controversial assertions about ASDs, this area of research immediately sparked his interest. “I have always enjoyed the process of opening up controversial issues in my research” he adds.

In a recent pilot study, he and his team also investigated the body loadings of PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls) in lactating mother’s in the city of Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, China. Yet another controversial area of research; given that Taizhou is the site of an e-waste processing site, and notably, the world’s major site for recycling transformers.

“E-waste is certainly a hot topic. And most people have no idea where it all ends up,” Wong comments. A lot of it ends up in Taizhou. Much of this e-waste contains PCBs; chemicals that have long been connected to various health problems. Unfortunately, the e-waste management and recycling processes expose the citizens of Taizhou to high levels of such-like chemicals. In fact, the research revealed that lactating mothers had extremely elevated levels of PCBs; levels well above the limits stipulated by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is of great concern to Wong, “People really are risking their lives to salvage materials and deal with this global problem.” Indeed, e-waste management and the potential long-term effects of exposure in an area in which he has invested much time and energy.

Diverse Academic Pursuits and Inspiring the Next Generation

Wong’s research interest includes environmental and health risk assessment, remediation of contaminated sites and bioconversion of waste. He has conducted a series of projects funded by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong, on the remediation of contaminated sites, focusing on the interactions of higher plants and associated microbes. His most recent projects supported by the Innovative Technology Commission and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department are related to the use of food waste based feed pellets for producing safe and quality freshwater and marine fish, respectively.

Commenting on his desire to branch out, he explains, “I really like to keep it interesting and set myself new challenges – not just stick solely to my PhD topic”.

This outlook has seen Wong contributes his expertise and insight in an advisory and managerial capacity on a vast array of exciting and meaningful projects. One of which was serving as regional coordinator for the ‘Regionally Based Assessment of Persistent Toxic Substances’. Wong explains, “It was a three-year project that began in the year 2000. The world was basically broken up into 12 regions; each with the goal of organising the collaboration of lead scientists and policy makers to establish the status of persistent organic pollutants and the effectiveness of their control. I coordinated the process in my particular region. The project was most rewarding and enlightening.” Wong has also recently taken part in a panel of three to review a UNEP/GEF initiative, ‘Emerging Chemicals Management Issues in Developing Countries and Countries with Economies in Transition’ with the aim of understanding the sources and preventing adverse impacts of chemicals on human health and the environment in rapidly developing countries.

And it’s not just in research that Wong has made, and continues to make, valuable contributions. He endeavours to share his insights with scientists and puts a high degree of importance on education; travelling and inspiring young scientists around the world. He relates, “I have had many career highlights. But I really enjoy supervising students, assisting them with their research, and guiding them as they strive to publish quality work... I especially enjoy giving talks and sharing my experiences in writing and teaching. I am also very much interested in helping young colleagues to network with other scientists.” To that end, he has initiated many a conference series “to provide a platform and opportunities for people to gather and discuss issues related to ecological assessment and remediation.” Certainly, Wong will continue to offer his wisdom and the proceeds of his experience to many young scientists and research projects to come.

Professor Wong has published over 640 papers and 32 book chapters, edited 25 books/special issues of scientific journals, and has successfully filed 5 patents. His reputation has been widely recognized internationally and capped by receiving two DSc Degrees awarded by University of Durham and University of Strathclyde (UK) in 1992 and 2004 respectively. He was awarded the Croucher Senior Fellow (Croucher Foundation of Hong Kong) in 1997, the Royal Society Visiting Fellow (Royal Society, UK) in 2000, Chang Jiang Chair Professor of Environmental Science (attached to Jinan University, Guangzhou, China) of Ministry of Education, China in 2014, and the Milton Gordon Award for Excellence in Phytoremediation (International Phytotechnology Society) in 2016. Professor Wong is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Geochemistry and Health (Springer).,