Key messages: As the EU shifts towards greater circularity and recycling, more workers will be employed in the waste management sector. This amplifies concerns over potential occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in waste. A key example of a waste stream containing hazardous chemicals is waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) where collection has grown by 40% between 2012 and 2021. More research and monitoring are needed to understand exposure to hazardous substances at different stages of the recycling process, assess exposure pathways, distinguish between formal and non-formal recycling sectors, and ensure workers are protected.

Exposure and health impacts in waste management 

The EU’s shift towards a circular economy — via the second Circular Economy Action Plan — is expected to significantly change the level and nature of employment in the waste sector. However, little research has been done into working conditions in the waste management sector or the wider circular economy. As the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work notes, these employees can be exposed to substances that cause various health issues, including acute toxic effects, allergies, cancer, infections and respiratory symptoms

Occupational exposure from handling WEEE 

WEEE continues to be one of the EU’s fastest-growing waste streams. Between 2012-2021, the total collected WEEE in the EU increased by 40% from around 3 million to 5 million tonnes. Workers handling and recycling WEEE can be exposed to hazardous substances, including flame retardants (e.g. triphenyl phosphate), heavy metals (e.g. lead, nickel and cadmium), plasticisers such as phthalates (e.g. Di-‘isononyl’ phthalate), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and others.  

This exposure may lead to adverse health impacts, particularly in facilities with insufficient protective risk management measures. For example, one review found that people exposed to e-waste had elevated levels of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants, which could increase the risk of negative health effects (e.g. altering hormone levels and impacting neonatal growth).  Furthermore, almost half of WEEE does not reach appropriate treatment plants but ends up in metals scrap and residual waste, is illegally exported or is simply unaccounted for. This poses a high risk for those ultimately handling this waste without adequate precautions

Further evidence of the negative impact of WEEE handling comes from Sweden and Belgium. In Sweden, significantly elevated levels of heavy metals were observed in the blood, plasma and urine of WEEE recycling workers. In Belgium, high levels of exposure to toxic organic pollutants (e.g. brominated flame retardants and dioxins in dust) were noted in three shredder plants.  

Looking to the future, it is expected that the volume of WEEE being handled in the EU will continue to grow — driven by the increasing demand for electrical equipment, circular economy and zero pollution ambitions, and existing requirements for handling these materials set out in the WEEE Directive. By extension, it is likely that there will also be an increase in the number of workers exposed to hazardous chemicals found in WEEE.   

That said, the relative amount of hazardous substances in EEE is expected to decrease via regulatory requirements and voluntary initiatives (although the use of new hazardous substances in EEE could act against this trend). The RoHS Directive has restricted the use of some hazardous substances (including cadmium, lead and mercury) in EEE products. 

Remaining challenges and data gaps  

More research needs to be conducted into workers’ exposure in EU waste management facilities — although such efforts face significant challenges, the sources of which are listed below:  

  • Worker exposure can occur at different stages in the waste recycling chain, including at collection, sorting, dismantling, shredding and/or grinding, as well as during further pre-processing and purification

  • Workers may be exposed via different pathways, such as inhalation, incidental ingestion or dermal exposure to chemicals. There is also the possibility of secondary exposure, where particulates are deposited on clothing and accidentally ingested or inhaled

  • Worker exposure to harmful chemicals may be direct or indirect during e-waste processing. For example, exposure may come from recycling equipment components, substances added as part of the recovery process (i.e. acids) or substances produced via recycling

  • Workers may be exposed in the formal (regulated, often industrial-scale) or non-formal (often smaller scale with no documentation on the management of hazardous chemicals and materials) e-waste recycling sectors

  • Workers’ exposure in facilities applying high treatment standards, e.g. the WEEELABEX standards, might differ from those not applying them. 

As such, while projects like HBM4EU have explored occupational chemical risks, there are insufficient data on the exposure of recycling and other waste treatment facility workers. Nevertheless, current evidence suggests that occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals from WEEE is a specific issue that merits further exploration. To this end, the Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals (PARC) is looking to build on the work of HBM4EU and establish more consistent methods for occupational biomonitoring across the EU.  

References and footnotes

  1. EC, 2023, ‘Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)’ ( accessed 03 March 2024.
    a b
  2. Weghmann, V., 2017, Waste Management in Europe. Good Jobs in the Circular Economy?, EPSU ( accessed 03 March 2024.
  3. EU-OSHA, 2014, ‘Exposure to dangerous substances in the waste management sector’ ( accessed 03 March 2024. 
    a b
  4. HBM4EU, 2022, Chemicals in a circular economy — Using human biomonitoring to understand potential new exposures, European Environment Agency ( accessed 03 March 2024.
    a b c d e
  5. Eurostat, 2023, ‘Waste statistics - electrical and electronic equipment’ ( accessed 03 March 2024.
  6. Bakhiyi, B., et al., 2017, ‘Has the question of e-waste opened a Pandora’s box? An overview of unpredictable issues and challenges’, Environment International 110, pp. 173–192.
  7. Gravel, S., et al., 2023, ‘Occupational health and safety, metal exposures and multi-exposures health risk in Canadian electronic waste recycling facilities’, Waste Management, 165, pp. 140–149.
    a b
  8. Parvez, S. M., et al., 2021, ‘Health consequences of exposure to e-waste: an updated systematic review’, The Lancet Planetary Health, 5 (12), pp. 905–920.
    a b
  9. Baldé, C.P., et al., 2020, In-depth review of the WEEE Collection Rates and Targets, in the EU-28, Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland, United Nations University / United Nations Institute for Training and Research – co-hosting the SCYCLE Programme ( accessed 03 March 2024.
  10. Doan, T. Q., et al., 2022, ‘Profile occurrences and in vitro effects of toxic organic pollutants in metal shredding facilities in Wallonia (Belgium)’, Journal of Hazardous Materials 423.
  11. EU, 2011, Directive 2011/65/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2011 on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (recast) Text with EEA relevance (OJ L 174, 1.7.2011, pp. 88–110).