Thailand’s toxicity crisis is linked to the shift of e-waste processors to the kingdom. Cadmium scare shocks Thailand with health fears for workers in Samut Sakhon. A massive 13,450 tons were finally thought to be accounted for. The PM orders urgent and tough action. However, is he ready to tackle the e-waste industry? Banned in China, it is now threatening the health of Thai workers and an already scarred environment in provinces throughout Thailand. 

Thailand must again look at its industrial development policies as well as regulatory oversight and enforcement. This comes as it appears the kingdom is being used as a new base by illegal e-waste recyclers from China. The massive cadmium scare, this week, which even led to the Royal Thai Army producing an emergency plan, is certainly not a once-off. Thai authorities led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Industry Minister Pimpatra Wichaikul were left scrambling to deal with the emergency involving the lethal carcinogen, Cadmium. 13,450 tons of the substance was discovered missing from a disposal plant in Tak province. In turn, this led to finds in Samut Sakhon, Chonburi and even Bangkok.

However, environmental activist groups are aware of the ongoing threat. E-waste imports into Thailand have rocketed by over 2100% since 2017. This was when China outlawed the industry outright on its soil. On Wednesday, 19 workers in Samut Sakhon were tested by medics and found to have dangerously high levels of the cancer-causing substance. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin (centre) reacted decisively this week to the crisis regarding 13,450 tons of lethal cadmium shipped illegally from Tak province to various locations in Thailand. (Inset left) On Wednesday, investigators found more of the toxic substance at a sealed-off factory in Samut Sakhon. In the meantime, Prime Minister Srettha ordered Industry Minister Pimpatra Wichaikul (inset right) to personally oversee emergency efforts.

Thai authorities may well be forced to reexamine the country’s industrial regulations following an exploding scandal linked to e-waste.

It comes with the proliferation of such factories in recent years, many of them established by Chinese owners.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin promised urgent action to stamp out the threat from e-waste to exposed local populations.

Huge quantity of toxic Cadmium, 13,450 tons distributed from a facility in Tak province. First quantity detected on Wednesday 3rd April sparking an alarm

It follows a week of helter-skelter detections pursued by police and scientists after a huge quantity of cadmium was understood to have been distributed from Tak province. 

Indeed, the Royal Thai Army, at one point, was understood to be preparing an emergency plan to deal with a catastrophic situation.

Cadmium is a blue-white substance linked with the recycling of rechargeable batteries. In particular, nickel cadmium batteries. 

Undoubtedly, human exposure to cadmium by air or additionally by its consumption in tainted food can lead to cancerous growth.

The current emergency began on Wednesday, April 3rd in Samut Sakhon province. 

At length, 100 bags of the substance were found in a warehouse.

Subsequently, police and officials learned that 13,450 tons of cadmium waste had been illegally transported from a site in Tak province.

 Tak province is in lower north central Thailand adjacent to Myanmar.

Transportation and storage of Cadmium is illegal, posing a dangerous threat to human health. Site in Tak declared a disaster zone with an exclusion order

In short, it is understood that while the source of the cadmium was licensed, the operation there was still illegal. At length, the licence was abused or used as a cover for illegal operations.

Indeed, authorities declared the area near the site in Tak a disaster zone and imposed an exclusion order.

Similarly, in Samut Sakhon where the Governor, Phon Damtham, ordered the factory there to be sealed off for 90 days. Thai included surrounding areas.

The facility at the Bang Chuet Sub District in the centre of Samut Sakhon Province was operated by J & B Metal Company Limited.

The find was linked to a 38-year-old Chinese national identified as Mr Liu Lu. He was later arrested by police.

Initially, 2,440 tons of cadmium were found at the facility but investigators went back on Wednesday.

In short, they found more quantities of the substance that appeared to have been deliberately concealed.

It was found in nooks and crannies while some was also found concealed under equipment.

In addition, on April 6th more bags were found in Chonburi. This was at a facility in the Khlong Kiew Subdistrict of Ban Bueng.

Up to 2,600 factories in Thailand are licensed for e-waste recycling activities. A business that has boomed in the kingdom since being outlawed in China

The kingdom in recent years has licensed up to 2,600 factories and facilities in line with the government’s much-vaunted Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economic vision.

Of course, this is a gross distortion of that vision and indeed a travesty.

The economic initiative was launched by Prime Minister Prayut Chan Ocha in 2020.

Indeed, many of the plants concerned are located on the country’s ambitious Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC). 

Significantly, this comprises the three eastern provinces of Chachoengsao, Chonburi and Rayong.

At the same time, many of the reports from concerned residents are being received from these provinces.

The booming electronic recycling industry deals with e-waste from many countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

However, a ban imposed on e-waste recycling activities by China in 2017 has seen many players move to Thailand.

PM Srettha Thavisin ordered decisive action this week. It remains to be seen if the country’s growing health problem with e-waste recycling is tackled

Following revelations which began to be seen last year and disturbing discoveries in the last week, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin ordered decisive action.

In 2017, the year China banned the industry on its soil, Thailand imported 2,824 metric tons of e-waste.

Figures available for the first ten months of 2023 showed this has risen to 58,877 metric tons with a 703% uptick in 2018 followed by a 135% rise in 2019 and similar rises since.

Many of those associated with the industry are Chinese business people.

There are reports that most are non-resident and fly into Thailand to conduct their businesses.

In addition, many have established licensed facilities in Thailand with most operators holding multiple licences.

However, police and investigating agencies are discovering massive illegal activity wherever there is an outrage.

Initial discovery of this week’s outrage was on April 3rd when 100 white bags of the toxic substance were discovered in a factory outlet in Samut Sakhon

The initial discovery of cadmium in the latest story was made on April 3, 2024, in the central district of Samut Sakhon province.

In turn, it marked the beginning of a chain of events that clearly highlights the dangers posed by cadmium waste. 

Samut Sakhon is south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand. It has long been associated with the fish processing industry. 

Indeed, the province is already suffering from high levels of water and soil pollution. These have been previously detected by officials in the Mueang district of Samut Sakhon where this worrying find was made.

Believed to have been illegally transported from Tak province, the waste was part of a bigger shipment totalling 13,450 tonnes. It certainly sparked outrage and worry among locals. 

Undoubtedly, in turn, it galvanised the government into swift action.

Nonetheless, the real concern is with the bigger picture. In short, the longer term. Especially given the nature of corruption in Thailand.

Samut Sakhon Governor Phon Damtham immediately ordered the return of the waste to Tak and sealed off the factory facility and adjoining areas for 90 days

Samut Sakhon Governor Phon Damtham later ordered the waste to be returned to Tak province within seven days for proper disposal. This was in accordance with established procedures.

However, the crisis took a turn for the worse when subsequent inspections revealed much of the cadmium was missing. Afterwards, even larger quantities of cadmium were found hidden in other locations.

In Chonburi province, a staggering 6,720 tons of cadmium waste were discovered in a warehouse. Significantly, this was owned by another Chinese national awaiting distribution. 

The handling of this crisis has been marked by a flurry of activity.

Government officials have been left scrambling to contain the situation. The overriding goal was to mitigate the environmental and health risks posed by the toxic waste.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, last weekend, ordered Industry Minister Pimpatra Wichaikul to personally oversee the handling of the waste. He emphasised the need for swift and decisive action.

Minister Pimpatra, in turn, acknowledged the gravity of this crisis. 

Minister of Industry Pimpatra Wichaikul ordered by PM to personally oversee the response to this crisis. First goal was to account for the Cadmium

Firstly, she revealed a significant discrepancy in the accounted waste.

While 2,440 tons were initially located in Samut Sakhon province, an additional 10,000 tons remained unaccounted for until their discovery in Chonburi province.

This revelation was a disturbing one.

The recycling of cadmium in Thailand is strictly regulated given its danger to human health.

On Wednesday, the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) reported 300 tons of the substance linked with J B Metal Co Ltd laos in the Rama 7 area of Bangkok.

This was linked to the two Thai shareholders in the firm, a husband and wife.

Thai officials confirmed that the disposal of neutralised cadmium in Tak province was legally authorised. However, its subsequent transport elsewhere in the kingdom and storage was highly illegal.

In effect, this demonstrates the difficulty facing those tasked with regulating such activities.

Human health danger posed by Cadmium is extreme. On Wednesday, 19 workers from two Samut Sakhon factories tested positive for high levels of toxicity

The toxic nature of cadmium waste poses a grave threat to both the environment and public health.

Cadmium and its compounds are highly toxic and can cause damage to human tissues and organs when they enter the food chain.

The disposal of cadmium waste is tightly regulated due to the severe environmental and health risks it poses, necessitating stringent measures to prevent its proliferation.

On Wednesday, it was confirmed that 19 workers from two factories in Samut Sakhon were admitted to hospital there. 

They had been exposed to cadmium, a known carcinogen. The substance not only causes cancer but, in addition, internal bleeding and gastrointestinal problems. 

Doctors reported that the workers showed dangerously high concentrations in urine samples taken.

Six agency task force gathered at Samut Sakhon Town Hall. Aside from criminal prosecutions and short-term safety, the thorny issue is the e-waste industry

In light of these developments, the government has taken decisive steps to address the crisis and prevent similar incidents in the future.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin ordered the transport of all detected cadmium waste back to the landfill in Tak province by April 30, 2024. This underlined his determination to safeguard public health and the environment.

Additionally, the government convened a joint committee comprising six agencies to oversee the response to the crisis.

He similarly ordered the task force now working from the town hall in Samut Sakhon to proceed and prosecute all involved. One of the agencies is the Department of Special Investigation (DSI).

Finally, the government will have its work cut out to make sure that such situations are brought to an end.

However, the problem is that this is not the first such exposé.

Residents in Chachoengsao near the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) reported chronic e-waste pollution problems in recent years. Police action was taken

Last year, residents living near e-waste recycling facilities in Thailand began voicing growing concerns.

In short, they complained of foul odours and potential health risks stemming from electronic recycling factories.

Undoubtedly, these have proliferated in recent years, stemming from China’s ban on e-waste recycling. Certainly, it appears that at least some of that industry has moved to Thailand.

It may even have been given assistance by Thai authorities seeking inward investment into the country.

In particular, many of the plants are located within the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) provinces. This was a signature policy initiative launched by the military junta government of General Prayut Chan Ocha in 2016.

It was earmarked as a centre for advanced industrial development.

Presently, the project is ongoing and still at the heart of Thailand’s efforts to attract inward investment.

PM wakes up to threat of cheap Chinese goods dumped on Thailand driven by misguided economic policies
Threat from contaminated fruit and vegetables from China part of a wider problem facing the kingdom
GDP fall for Thailand’s flagship Eastern Economic Corridor project since the COVID-19 crisis began

In the meantime, it is already associated with giant Chinese firms, in particular firms engaged in online retailing. These firms have been identified by Thai traders and small businesses as a key threat to their business especially given the special access they have to Thailand’s market.

Past crackdown launched on e-waste recycling firms. However, it is feared that these are not isolated cases while most firms carry on with business as usual

In the past, Thai officials have announced a crackdown on unlicensed e-waste recyclers in addition to those abusing licences.

There have been ongoing promises to address the environmental and health hazards associated with electronic waste disposal.

There is a fear many e-waste recycling firms are using legitimate licences to obfuscate and carry on highly illegal activities and processes.

Certainly, until they are caught like what happened in Samut Sakhon on April 3rd, the public is exposed. It is also powerless, as is law enforcement, without tighter regulation by the Industry ministry.

‘Ae,’ a resident from Chachoengsao province. 

Last year, she described experiencing dizziness whenever she smelled fumes emanating from a nearby e-waste recycling plant. 

She highlighted the rapid expansion of Chinese-owned facilities in her area. 

For instance, she explained that many of them were established on lands previously rented from Thai landlords.

Later, they were converted into e-waste processing plants. 

E-waste factories are big business in Chachoengsao

Ae’s observations substantiate the fear of the increasing presence of such facilities across villages and provinces in Thailand.

In particular, near industrial zones such as the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC).

‘There were very few e-waste factories at the beginning,’ Ae disclosed. ‘Now, the industry has expanded across the village and to other provinces.’

The surge in electronic waste being imported into Thailand has previously seen authorities take action.

However, these actions have been against unlicensed recyclers. They came following complaints from residents and environmentalists. In particular, regarding foul odours emitted by these facilities.

Most of the facilities, last year, were concentrated in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), comprising provinces such as Chachoengsao, Chon Buri, and Rayong.

‘Since China restricted the e-waste, we have seen a significant growth of Chinese money pouring into the recycling industry here, which is allowed to happen by weak regulations,’ said Penchom Saetang, director of EARTH.

Local residents near such plants are experiencing health issues. There are over 30 such factories located in the Phanom Sarakham district of Chachoengsao 

Earth stands for Ecological Alert and Recovery (EARTH). This is a Thai-based environmental organisation.

Residents living near e-waste recycling plants have reported adverse health effects, including breathing issues, dizziness, and headaches.

They attributed this unquestionably to exposure to fumes emitted during the recycling process at nearby plants. 

Despite protests from villagers and promises from plant owners to address the issue, concerns in 2024 persist.

Local residents are worried about the long-term health implications of exposure to these pollutants.

‘The smells still come. People living next to the factory could smell the scent downwind,’ Ae said. In turn, she expressed ongoing concerns about the impact of the recycling plant on her community.

The Phanom Sarakham district in Chachoengsao is home to over 30 licensed hazardous waste facilities. Feelings are running high. 

In brief, about high levels of dioxins detected previously in soil and duck egg tests near e-waste recycling plants. 

EARTH Thailand and the Czech Republic-based Arnika Association collected samples in February 2022.

Consequently, they revealed alarming levels of contamination in the vicinity of these facilities.

‘We found that there is a single company granted 15 licences. Another individual was granted five licences to operate recycling facilities. Is it necessary for a company and a person to have that many licences?’ said Dawan Chantarahassadi, a representative of EARTH.

The organisation highlights regulatory loopholes that contribute to the proliferation of recycling facilities operated by a few entities.

Thai police promise a crackdown in the area. They have promised surprise raids with court-approved warrants to keep the local factories on their toes

In response to growing concerns, Thai officials staged a crackdown on three factories in two provinces. 

Afterwards, they found over 1,000 metric tons of e-waste being stored illegally. Police seized electronic items, laptops, and electronic parts believed to be unlawfully imported.

Previously the promise signalled a more aggressive approach to tackling illegal e-waste operations.

‘We will show up with a court warrant without prior notice. They have to think twice if it’s worth risking being punished and even have the factory shut down,’ declared Colonel Chatchawarn Chuchaijaroen, superintendent at the Economic Crime Suppression Division.

Certainly, he emphasised the government’s commitment to addressing the issue.

This week’s experience has shown that this approach is certainly not being taken by Thai authorities throughout the kingdom.

If so, it appears that some have been caught napping. Undoubtedly, the problem is linked to Thailand’s rampant problem with corruption and lack of legal enforcement.

Join the Thai News forum, follow Thai Examiner on Facebook here
Receive all our stories as they come out on Telegram here
Follow Thai Examiner here

Further reading:

Threat from contaminated fruit and vegetables from China part of a wider problem facing the kingdom

Bank of Thailand holding strong against quite a strident push by the PM for more populist economics 

Property market glut sees minister’s call for supports in the face of the central bank’s ongoing credit crunch

Prime Minister Srettha still doggedly pushing his less than popular and legally perilous Digital Wallet plan

Digital Wallet plan blown out of the water by corruption body on Tuesday warning of illegality

Srettha outlines Digital Wallet as his government begins to flounder with a faltering economy and confusion

Economy is in troubled waters with fears for both exports and foreign tourism as 2023 winds down

Thailand faces an economic future of low growth despite Srettha’s plans because of a darker world

Another dip for the baht or are economic danger signals flashing for both Thailand and the world?

Bank of Thailand boss appears critical of the new government’s policy initiatives on the economy

Economy tanks as demand for loans surges with an acute credit crisis and falling export output reducing growth

Concerns over household debt rising as banks report marginally lower non-performing loans

Thailand preparing for a soft landing as ‘cracks’ open up in the Chinese economy says bank chief