Guinea Worm in Nigeria, 2001 | 

In 2001, photographer Mike Urban and I went to Nigeria as part of a report we did for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the early days of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation global health program.

One of the world’s biggest health problems is dirty water. One of the most horrific illnesses you can get from drinking dirty water is guinea worm, aka dracunculiasis. We visited a village where Carter Center health workers combined treatment of the affliction with prevention education and water supply improvement projects.

Here’s a link to the story on guinea worm we did back then and a slide show of Mike’s photos:

Is our desire for the latest e-gizmo poisoning the poor worldwide? | 

Flickr, LGEPR

We love gizmos

The media love-fest with digital gizmos is moving from the high-pitched holiday phase (electronic devices are always the top gifts for Christmas) into a smaller, but more intense hysterical phase this week with the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Tuesday.

My buddy Todd Bishop at Seattle-based Geekwire, for example, posted out of Sin City his story about this awesome mini-helicopter you can pilot using your smart phone. Cool! I want one ….

Americans are the world’s leading consumers of electronic devices. We are also the world’s biggest wasters of electronic devices.

When we buy new gizmos, we usually want to get rid of the old ones. Electronic waste (aka e-waste) is a surprisingly large, toxic and growing burden inflicted, like many such afflictions, mostly on poor people in poor countries.


As my KPLU colleague Monica Spain reported Monday, most folks in Seattle know they aren’t supposed to just toss their old TV or computer into the garbage. That’s why the state Department of Ecology launched its e-cycle program aimed at making it easy for us to responsibly discard our gizmos.

But as Monica noted, this can require a certain amount of due diligence on the consumer’s part to responsibly discard your old laptop, TV or other electronic device. Just taking your obsolete (i.e., last year’s model) computer to any old recycling facility may not be good enough due to some gaping loopholes in the law.

In fact, some experts say our efforts to reduce e-waste at home appears to be contributing to the poisoning of some communities overseas.

“We have passed laws that keeps this stuff out of our own landfills but tends to send it offshore,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the internationally renowned e-waste advocacy organization Basel Action Network.

The group last week warned of “fake recyclers” who aren’t actually recycling devices. BAN says they are actually engaged in the illicit export of electronic devices to China, Africa and India where impoverished people smash and burn the waste in search of precious metals or marketable components. (See BAN photo slide show above).

The Seattle-based organization is named for the Basel Convention — an international treaty passed in 1989 that prohibits countries from dumping hazardous wastes in other countries. Only three countries — Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States — have refused to adhere to the Basel Convention.

“This is against international law but not against the law in the U.S.,” said Puckett.

As a result, the U.S. continues to be one of the key contributors to this massive and growing but woefully under-appreciated tangle of environmental, economic and health crises.

It’s a crisis largely out of sight and mind in the rich world — driven by the fast-moving, modern churn of our desire for electronic upgrades, the tech industry’s devotion to stunningly rapid ‘planned obsolescence’ and our failure to consider what really happens to our old devices when we throw them away. There really is no ‘away,’ notes Puckett.

Tomorrow, thanks to my laptop, digital camera and smart phone (not to mention the KPLU servers and all the rest of the ‘Interwebs’ electronica I take for granted), I intend to take a closer look at this issue of e-waste and how two other local organizations are working to reduce its toxic load on the planet.

Scenes from Rwanda | 

I’m leaving Rwanda today, heading home as you read this, but I will be posting more about my trip next week.

I will take a closer look at a number of projects (including some run out of Seattle) that are helping to make this once devastated nation what many see as “Africa’s success story,” a harder look at President Paul Kagame’s responses to allegations of suppression of the media free speech and many more stories about this tiny but amazing country.

Slideshow: Party with a Purpose 2011 | 

Slide show: Tour of new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus | 

Here are some more photos from a media tour of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new Seattle campus, as well as some shots of the evening opening reception.

Students dissecting mosquitos, tracking down malaria | 

Students from Whitman Middle School on Thursday learned a bit more about malaria research by perfecting a very specialized, if peculiar, skill — dissecting mosquitoes to remove their salivary glands. This was the latest class of recruits for Seattle BioMed’s BioQuest program.

Here are some of the young scientists at work, beginning with 12-year-old Emma Doherty. Another 6th grader featured later in this slide show can be seen grimacing as she watched an instructional dissection (which, frankly, looks more like what I would call a dismembering) of a mosquito on a display screen.

She later turned to her microscope and began pulling into pieces the skeeters, mumbling to herself: “This is disgusting.” But she was smiling.

Seatte BioMed is home to one of the world’s largest malaria research teams. One of their primary goals is to identify an effective vaccine against malaria. BioQuest typically gears its program toward high school students. These students were given special, advanced access as finalists in Whitman’s science fair.