New Delhi: Young rag-pickers sifting through rubbish are a common image of India`s chronic poverty, but destitute children face new hazards picking apart old computers as part of the growing "e-waste" industry.
Asif, aged seven, spends his days dismantling electronic equipment in a tiny, dimly-lit unit in east Delhi along with six other boys.
"My work is to pick out these small black boxes," he said, fingers deftly prising out integrated circuits from the pile of computer remains stacked high beside him.
His older brother Salim, 12, is also hard at work instead of being at school. He is extracting tiny transistors and capacitors from wire boards.
The brothers, who decline to reveal how much they earn a day, say they are kept frantically busy as increasing numbers of computers, printers and other electronic goods are discarded by offices and homes.
Few statistics are known about the informal "e-waste" industry, but a United Nations report launched in February described how mountains of hazardous waste from electronic products are growing exponentially in developing countries.
It said India would have 500 percent more e-waste from old computers in 2020 than in 2007, and 18 times more old mobile phones.
The risks posed to those who handle the cast-offs are clear to T.K. Joshi, head of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi.
He studied 250 people working in the city as recyclers and dismantlers over 12 months to October 2009 and found almost all suffered from breathing problems such as asthma and bronchitis.
"We found dangerously high levels -- 10 to 20 times higher than normal -- of lead, mercury and chromium in blood and urine samples," he said.
"All these have a detrimental effect on the respiratory, urinary and digestive systems, besides crippling immunity and causing cancer."
Toxic metals and poisons enter workers` bloodstreams during the laborious manual extraction process and when equipment is crudely treated to collect tiny quantities of precious metals.
"The recovery of metals like gold, platinum, copper and lead uses caustic soda and concentrated acids," said Joshi.
"Workers dip their hands in poisonous chemicals for long hours. They are also exposed to fumes of highly concentrated acid."
Safety gear such as gloves, face masks and ventilation fans are virtually unheard of, and workers -- many of them children -- often have little idea of what they are handling.
"All the workers we surveyed were unaware of the dangers they were exposed to. They were all illiterate and desperate for employment," said Joshi. "Their choice is clear -- either die of hunger or of metal poisoning."
And he warned exposure to e-waste by-products such as cadmium and lead could result in a slow, painful death.