E-waste Is Hazardous to Your Health
E-waste Is Hazardous to Your Health
Short of a surgeon general’s warning on every piece of electronics, this report in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) should serve as ample admonition about the growing health consequences associated with electronics at their end of life. The peer-reviewed journal article reflects the accumulated wisdom of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) around the topic of electronic waste.
“Safety concerns arise because e-waste … contains hazardous constituents such as lead, mercury, and chromium, certain chemicals in plastics, and flame retardants.
Documentation is increasing about health effects related to contamination in air, soil, and water for people working and living at or near informal e-waste processing sites.”* These are the risks we’ve been talking about for a good while now. E-waste contamination can affect the population of an entire area. Take, for example, the Agbogbloshie area of Ghana, home to some 40,000 residents, which is now the number one toxic place on the planet. But lest you think e-waste contamination is limited to developing nations, plenty of contamination exists right here in the U.S.
The health risks apply to employees both in formal and informal recycling sectors. According to the EHP article, “In Guiyu, China, possibly the largest e-waste recycling location in the world, about 100,000 people are employed as e-waste recyclers (Lundgren 2012).”*
The complication comes from the fact that e-waste is also “globally recognized as a resource because of the potential for recovering valuable materials including iron, aluminum, copper, gold, silver and rare earth metals.”* In an attempt to reclaim the value, ad hoc methods of recovery emerge where worker and environmental protection are not regulated. Such methods include using acid baths to extract precious metals like gold, and without adequate protection, workers are exposed to a high risk of chemical injury. Burning cables and housings, breaking apart toxic solders, and dumping the resulting hazardous waste contribute to the danger.
The problem is that “informal e-waste recycling is a source of much-needed income in many low-to-middle-income countries.”* This complicating factor is often overlooked in most contemporary e-waste literature, a notable exception being Adam Minter’s “Junkyard Planet.” Without acknowledging the economic role of this unregulated industry, attempts to curtail this activity will likely fail, as crackdowns in a specific area typically result in the emergence of the problem in another unregulated spot.
The demand for these materials is being fueled in part because “electronic products are a major driver.” “Precious and special metals such as platinum, indium, and ruthenium that are used extensively in modern electronics are naturally available in limited amounts (Schleup et al. 2009). While the amount of material, such as copper, needed for any one mobile phone is miniscule,”* we have to consider the nearly 7 billion mobile phones in the world today, not to mention the tablets, PCs and servers, all of which rely on these same materials.
The EHP article calls for intervention at local, national and global levels, noting that the long-term effects of e-waste that has been accumulating for a while has long-lasting consequences that must be addressed. What’s also needed is continuous improvement in design toward the elimination of toxic materials in electronics. Closing the loop by designing for ease of repair, reuse and safe recycling is integral to any long-term solution.
Carol Baroudi works for Arrow’s Value Recovery business, promoting sustainability awareness and action. She is the lead author of Green IT For Dummies. Her particular focus is on electronics at the IT asset disposition stage, e-waste and everything connected. Follow her on Twitter @carol_baroudi and connect with her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/carolbaroudi.