dults were grilling circuit boards on barbecue grills. They melted the soldering and removed the chips, and then the women would separate the parts in different bags and wash them with water. After the circuit boards were soaked in acid to recuperate bits of gold, they were finally either burned or buried.
I witnessed kids between the ages of five and ten working in barracks with no ventilation, with people all around them burning everything from the metal components of computers to wires to extract the copper. When the PVC and the brominated flame retardant around the wires burn, they emit high levels of chlorinated dioxins and furans, two of the most persistent organic pollutants. As a result, the local river is so contaminated that the levels of acidity are almost total. The water contains an estimated 2,400 times the recommended levels of lead, and it’s not hard to notice: The river is literally black from the toner of printer cartridges and from washing the burned motherboards. The toner contains carbon black, a known carcinogen, but the locals wash themselves, their clothes, and their food with this water. It’s so toxic that even boiling it doesn’t come close to purifying it. Above the water, the air was thick with smoke. Around it, the land is so irreparably poisoned that nothing can grow. All the food and drinking water is imported from out of town.
On my third day in Guiyu, I managed to get to the main dump. The mountains of computer parts I had seen so far were nothing compared with what awaited. The roads were in a constant state of traffic jam with trucks, motorbikes, and even mules carrying parts to be “recycled.” It was hell. Thick smoke hung like storm clouds. It hurt to breathe.
As I stopped to take pictures, a furious woman came out of nowhere, charging me with her broom, trying to grab my camera. Not wanting to cause trouble in an illegal toxic-waste dump in southern China, I ran back to the car. She followed, waving her broom around like a baseball bat, banging on the windows. She broke the windshield. She was blind with rage, trying to break the remaining bits of glass off with her bare hands. When she saw she couldn’t do it she stuck her broom through the hole she’d made and started smacking me in the head.
Then the police showed up to—I naively thought—rescue me from the crazy woman. I was very wrong. They ordered me to wait in the car while they interrogated all the witnesses except for the woman, whom they let calmly walk back to her barrack. People crowded around the car and stared at me as if I were an exotic animal in a cage. After an hour the police told my driver to follow them to the station, where I was interrogated for an hour with the aid of a translator. I told them I was a university student on vacation. I had previously hid the better rolls of film, so I could hand them the ones that were no good to me. They let me go back to my hotel, chauffered by the poor driver whose car had been beaten up by the crazy old woman.
A few days later there was a knock at my hotel door. It was the cops again. They took me back to the station, where I was questioned by six cops. I thought they were going to beat the shit out of me. After an hour of repeating myself, I convinced them that I was merely a student on holiday. They believed me! That is, until they got the owner of the hotel to show them the ID card I’d used to sign in. Under job description, it said “photographer.” Whoops. The interrogation started again. I played it dumb, hung my head, and told them I was just a silly student who takes amateur pictures and has no idea what is going on in their town. Three hours later they finally released me and I hightailed it right the fuck out of Guiyu. I will never go back.