Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Impact of E-waste

Humans have always been proficient producers of trash; however, towards the end of the 20th century we have created a new, noxious clutter: the electronic detritus that has come to be known as E-waste. Today, developed and developing countries alike are hooked on high-tech gadgets: TVs, computers, cell phones, video games, iPods, etc. According to a 2005 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it is estimated that Americans will discard 30 to 40 million computers each year. ( It is projected that 25 million televisions will be taken out of service annually as viewers switchover from analog to digital televisions. To add to this, American consumers discard 98 million cell phones every year, and the number is growing. (BAN, 2002)

What is Electronic Waste?

Electronic waste, E-Waste, or high-tech trash denotes the electronic items that are no longer in use by consumers, and therefore disposed of as garbage. However, unlike typical garbage, much of E-Waste is not biodegradable, nor does typical waste pose large-scale health and economic threats. When consumers upgrade to new and improved technologies, the discarded technologies become E-Waste when they are not properly recycled, and we still have yet to come up with a truly efficient recycling system for the environment. It seems like a case where the technology advanced quicker than the realization of its implications.

Where did this begin?

The term electronic waste is only a recent entity, as devices of higher technology only began to be produced towards the latter half of the 20th century. Before the 1970s, there was little production of these technologically complicated items, each consisting of over 1,000 different substances, several of which are toxic and create serious pollution upon disposal. (BAN, 2002) Each year, more new devices are created, and more new devices are thrown out. This began in the most developed nations such as the United States and Japan, leading the technological revolution but also leading the electronic pollution revolution as well. And with an immense population, America remains one of the biggest locations where electronic waste originates from.

How is the E-Waste recycled once it is shipped to recycling centers in the developing world?

In the US, over 80 percent of discarded e-waste ends up in landfills. The remaining 20 percent is channeled through recycling companies. A handful of these recycling companies do indeed recycle the millions of TVs, computers, printers, cell phones, VCRs, DVD players, and iPods with minimal environmental impacts and health consequences for their workers. However, in the US and Europe recycling a computer costs approximately $20, but in India, for example, it can cost just $2. Most recycling companies ship waste to the developing world where environmental and health code enforcement is weak, and the waste can be processed much more cheaply, but at a higher cost to the environment and the workers.

Recycling workers toil diligently to extrapolate the various valuable elements of electronic waste, including gold, copper, silver and plastic. Wearing no protective clothing, gloves or eyewear, they pick through piles of unsorted circuit boards, CRTs, ink cartridges, cables, circuit boards, and countless other pieces of waste.

Workers burn circuit boards to strip off computer chips and transistors, inhaling lead, mercury and cadmium, which burns their eyes. They burn microchips to recover copper. They dip circuit boards and electric cables into large tubs of acid in order to extract gold. The acid is a mixture of pure nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, and it strips the gold out of the plastic cables. When the acid is depleted the workers often dump it in a hole, pour it into streams or open sewers.

Plastics can be cut, washed, dried, and then crushed into a powder and melted into long tubes that can be sold to factories if they are properly sorted by type and color. Workers do not have the proper inspection equipment to distinguish between ABS, PVC, PC, PS, PPO, PP, POM, and MMA plastics, so they use a “burn and sniff” test instead. (Grossman, 2006). PVC coated wires are also often burned to a powdery ash to expose the copper within. The PVC powder is discarded. Burning plastics releases fumes of PVCs and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Condensation and precipitation brings these fumes from the global air stream into local water supplies.

Ink cartridges are taken apart by hand and workers use small brushes to sweep out the ink and toner, inhaling clouds of chemical vapor and carbon black particles.

How is this an environmental problem, and what are the other implications?

The great question instantiates as, "So what? There's some e-waste, how does it affect me?" People are dying. Children are dying. Why? Compromised immune systems and heavy metal poisoning from a rampant and uncontrolled recycling process that puts acid and mercury into the dinner plates of children. Along with this, the soil, air and water content of harmful materials is extremely high in the areas where this electronic waste is imported. The two major resultants of this environmental contamination materializes in health and economic concerns. These two problems also are directly correlated, especially in developing parts of the world. These materials, when disposed of improperly, end up in water supplies, or burned, creating an inevitable consumption that harms those who are unfortunate to live in proximity to these conditions. The black-markets of the areas extract the valuable materials from the dismantled computers and gadgets, and then proceed to burn the materials (occurring in places like India and China with high-populations) which winds up causing disease to many of the innocent inhabitants who do not participate in these kinds of practices. Black-market slave labor is employed to extract these substances and then those workers are the ones who are left to suffer for the inhumanity of those who drive them to utilize E-waste to the detriment of their own health. This is only a recent problem, like stated above, because the development of these specific types of items only dates back to about 40 years, with each year demonstrating the exponentially conducive advancement of technological production.

Who needs to take the most responsibility in implementing a change?

The more developed the nation (and subsequently developed nations with higher populations) the more E-Waste they will contribute to the environment. Right now, Americans are buying more computers than people in any other nation, with over 50% of U.S. households owning computers. (BAN, 2002) The chart shown above shows the highest consumption of electricity, thus giving us a general estimate of which nations are responsible for creating the most electronic devices that will soon meet their obsolescence. With the United States leading the pack, it is OUR responsibility to change this horrible trend of polluting not only the environment, but the mouths of children in foreign countries that have to inhale this garbage daily. The responsibility falls primarily on those who contribute largest to the problem, currently the United States, Russia, China, Japan and any economy that relies heavily on technology.

Furthermore, specific type of devices harm the environment more than others. If there are valuable elements unique to the type of machine that is disposed, it encourages this black market activity of melting and removing these elements, thus contaminating the environment further. Typically, the more complicated the device, the more it will pollute the environment, as those items consisting of the most potentially harmful materials will have heavy metals, some of which have a 0% recycling efficiency. The more elements that a high-tech gadget consists of, the more potential there is for harmful health effects, and black-market extraction for those materials, causing economic turmoil in developing nations.

What contributes to the largest amount of electronic waste?

Aside from just pointing fingers at who or what is to blame for this current pollution problem, we can look instead at the human disposition towards desiring progression. Currently, there are alarming rates of obsolescence because of mere efficiency and timing. Rapid product development has made devices like televisions and computers obsolete in only a few years, and with consumers infrequently taking their items to a repair shop to fix them instead of just buying new, the potential for this hazardous garbage is exponential. Currently, more than 50% of disposed computers are in good working order, but discarded just to make way for the latest technology. As of 2005, data suggests that one computer will become obsolete for every new one put on the market, and as technological developments advance, this ratio will decrease even further. More than a decade ago, in 1998, it was estimated that 20 million computers became obsolete in the United States, and the overall E-waste volume was estimated at 5-7 million tons. (BAN, 2002) As of 2009 20 million tons of E-waste is produced per year (820,000 tons of which are copper), (Robinson, 2009) and if we want to reduce this problem we either need to discover a way for reduced obsolescence, or a more efficient recycling method.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Environmental Impact

95 percent of electronic waste is recyclable. However, unregulated recycling can cause more harm to the environment than landfilling. While many companies, such as Apple, have safe and effective recycling programs, the majority of recycling companies export some percentage of their electronic waste to China or poor countries in Africa, where the waste is “recycled,” or destroyed and stripped of its valuable metals. Though this seems like a good thing on the surface, because components are being repurposed, unregulated recycling centers burn or dissolve the plastic components to release the precious metals: a process that releases environmental contaminants into the air, land, and water that would otherwise remain trapped and inert in landfills (Robinson 2009).

The most common type of electronic waste as of 2009 is cathode ray monitors (those big tvs with the curved screens that nobody uses anymore), which make up about 45 percent of the waste stream, but there is evidence that this is changing. We are increasingly seeing LCD products and other more advanced, technologies in the waste stream (Robinson 2009).

However, more advanced technologies tend to have new, advanced substances in them that are relatively unstudied. Platinum group metals, for example, are found in iphones and other modern hand-held devices, but little or nothing is known about their potential impact on health and the environment…except that they are getting into everything. Traces of platinum group metals, for example, have been detected in water, soil, and even snails around recycling centers in Africa. There is an exponential relationship between the growth in a country’s wealth and the number of computers per person.

Still, it is difficult to determine how the amount of e-waste will change in future years. There is currently a trend of miniaturization in the electronics industry: cell phones, cameras, and laptops are generally getting smaller. Also, computing is becoming more centralized. Cloud computing, or linking electronics into a centralized, stream-lined infrastructure, could lead to smaller amounts of e-waste as it requires less large-scale servers and other computing infrastructure components. Also, some new electronics are more recyclable and less hazardous, such as LCDs which contain much smaller quanitites of hazardous materials such as PCBs.

However, electronic lifetimes are getting shorter as companies scramble to lower prices and up profits. The average laptop is engineered to be obsolete after 2 to 3 years. Also, appliances and vehicles are becoming increasingly electronic. Many modern refrigerators and washing machines contain electronic components. This will also contribute to the e-waste stream, as appliances are not generally considered in calculations of e-waste quantities.

The average piece of e-waste is 43.7 percent metal, 23.3 percent plastic, 15 percent glass, and 17.3 percent electronics. The primary valuable components are copper, gold, and platinum group metals. The most abundant of these substances is copper. Out of the 20 million tons of e-waste generated every year, 820,000 tons of it is copper (Robinson 2009).

Printed circuit boards contain these precious metals in concentrations 10 times higher than which can be achieved through commercial mining, making it relatively practical source for these substances. To extract them, the plastics and other non-valuable components are either burned away or dissolved in acid. Both of these methods release toxins into the environment, many of which would NOT have been released had the electronic item decayed slowly in a landfill (Robinson 2009).

There are a number of substances found in electronic waste that are known to be hazardous to the environment. These include Lead, Antimony (Sb), Mercury (Hg), Cadmium (Cd), Nickel (Ni), Polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). When burned or dissolved in acid, this waste releases dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAHs), and hydrogen chloride (Robinson 2009).


Lead is known to be extremely hazardous to humans and animals, and has detrimental effects on reproduction. Though lead is not known to have serious effects on the environment itself, it can accumulate in soil and water and, in that way, be transmitted to humans and other organisms. It can also be spread through biomagnification (Sepúlveda, 2010).


Antimony has toxic properties similar to that of arsenic. It is a component of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common type of plastic. Though it is safe for relatively short periods of time, it can eventually leech into water. This leeching occurs more quickly in more acidic environments, so if this plastic is dissolved with acid, as is a common practice in third world recycling centers, antimonly can easily enter the environment, causing serious illness and death in humans and other animals (Westerhoff 2007).


Mercury is found in many batteries and electronic devices, and is known to have serious health effects. As is well known, mercury can accumulate in the bodies of fish, and thereby be spread to all organisms that consume them, including humans. In addition, it has been observed that, in warm climates, the oxidation of mercury in the environment can be accelerated, leading to the creation of oxidized Hg atoms that are known to be associated with ozone depletion (MacDonald 2000).


Cadmium is another element that has been shown to have serious health effects. It is contained in many electronics, and can accumulate in soil, vegetation, and mollusks. Cadmium is present naturally in many vegetables and mollusks, but high concentrations due to contamination are very dangerous (Jarup 2009).


Nickel can have extremely detrimental effects on plant growth if it exists in high levels in soil. This toxicity increases with changes in soil Ph. However, there was fairly wide variation in toxicity between different types of soils, so more research is needed to assess the exact environmental effects and properties of nickel contamination (Rooney 2007). There is evidence that high levels of nickel can change the entire chemical composition of plant species. For example, St. John's Wort, a plant often used medicinally, fails to produce concentrations of the chemicals that lend it's healing properties if it is grown in high concentrations of nickel (Murch 2002).

Furans (polychlorinated dibenzo-furans, (PCDFs))

Not enough is known about the precise chemicals of furans to determine its exact environmental effects. However, studies show that it has dangerous potential for the environment in that it can promote the creation of aerosols and contribute to smog pollution. It could also be dangerous because of its ability to interact chemically with chlorine, which is often found in high concentrations on coastlines due to industrial emissions (Villanueva 2007). Furans can be carried long distances through the atmosphere, and generally accumulate at the poles. However, little is known about their effects on the environment or on global warming (Lohmann 1998)

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAHs)

PAHs and PHAHs are released when e-waste is burned. These substances are lipophylic, and therefore accumulate in the foodchain. They have been shown to have serious health effects, including genetic damage and have been detected in foods. More research is needed to assess the impact of these substances on the environment. (ASTDR 2009)

Hydrogen Chloride

Hydrogen chloride is known to be toxic to humans. However, it can also have serious environmental effects. It dissociates in water and soil, and can cause the Ph of both to become more acidic, damaging crops and entire ecosystems. It is not, however, accumulate in plants or animals (ATSDR 2002).

Environmental effects:

PBDEs, PCBs, and PCDD/Fs do not exist naturally in the environment. Unusually high concentrations of all of these substances can be found in processing centers in developing countries as well as in the farm lands, organisms, and water in the areas surrounding them.

Polybrominated dephenyl esters (PBDEs), which are used as flame retardants, are mixed into plastic components. If the plastic is left to degrade in a landfill, PBDEs will not be released into the environment (at least not for hundreds or thousands of years). However, when plastics containing PBDEs are burned these harmful substances are released into the environment. Because they are lipophilic, (meaning they stick to lipids, or animal fats) they can accumulate in organisms, both plants and animals, and be spread throughout the food chain in a process called biomagnification. They have been shown to interfere with the immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems of all types of animals. Though these effects have never been directly observed in humans, there is likely to be an effect. (de Witt 2002)

Dioxins, primarily Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, are released into the environment when plastic wires are burned to recover copper. The effects they produce are similar to those of PBDEs. They are not found in water, as they are hydrophobic, but they have been detected in certain aquatic plants. Though no effect has been observed on the health or growth of the plant itself, these plants are consumed by fish and mammals, who are very sensitive to dioxins. Also, it is possible that the effects of dioxins take a long time to be expressed, and it is simply to early to tell what effect they might have. In addition, dioxins can travel long distances because they are able to bind to aerosols: small particles of matter in the air. This means that they can easily be carried outside the range of recycling centers, and through ingestion and subsequent biomagnification, affect ecosystems and foodchains far from the actual site of contamination. Dioxins can also accumulate in sediment or on the surface of bodies of water. Accumulation represents a kind of sequestration, but it is possible that these captured molecules could reenter the ecosystem. Similarly, dioxins in the soil tend to remain non-volatile, but factors such as erosion and changes in soil characteristics could make them become active again (Wenning 2008). More research is needed to define their potential impact on ecosystems. Very few studies assess the impact of dioxins on plant life or soil.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are used as coolants and insulators for transformers and capacitors. They were banned by congress in 1976, but are still found in high concentrations in electronic waste. They are known to cause disfiguring dermatitis at high concentrations and are believed to be carcinogenic. In 1976, all fishing was banned in the Upper Hudson river due to contamination from two upstream manufacturing plants.

Platinum Group Metals

These metals have become common in electronics relatively recently due to their high stability and chemical resistance. However, these elements are known to accumulate in the environment. PGMs initially accumulate in particulate mater on the ground, in the air, and in water, and from there get incorporated into organisms. They seem to accumulate in the highest levels in water and in vegetation. More research is needed to determine what effect this accumulation can have on the environment (Ravindra 2004).


Above all, more research is needed to determine the exact environmental effects of each of these contaminants. There is already significant documentation and quantification of the presence of these contaminants at all levels of ecosystems: from soil and water to humans. We know that these substances are already out in the world. They are continuing to spread through biomagnification and, due to their lengthy lifetimes, they aren’t going away. However, there is little thorough and conclusive research on the specific impacts of each of these substances on the environment. We need to know what they are doing to ecosystems, how much of each substance elicits how much of an effect, how long it will take for us to start seeing serious break downs in lifecycles of plants and animals, and how soon these contaminants will become a serious concern for human life around the world, rather than only among third-world electronics recyclers.

Electronic waste is gaining attention from scientists and policy makers around the world, and there are several interesting efforts underway to gather more data on current conditions and develop solutions. One such project comes from Carlo Ratti of MIT’s SENSEable City lab. He and his team have developed small electronic tracking devices that, unlike GPS or RFID tagging systems, allow objects to be tracked anywhere around the world, even if the object is buried (RFID tags can only be read with sensors, and GPS systems require a direct line of sight between the sensor and a satellite). Ratti’s tags are able to triangulate an object’s location using the signals from cell phone towers, which are found all over the world, even in the poorest of countries. The tags can be affixed to different pieces of waste and then tracked in real-time for long periods of time. This data will throw light on waste removal systems, allowing us to determine exactly where waste is going and how it gets there. Though the SENSEable Lab’s current goal is to assess the state of waste in two U.S. cities, Seattle and NYC, in order to find inefficiencies in urban waste management systems, the technology could potentially be applied to studies of electronic waste. The electronic waste trade is clandestine, and by tagging electronics with these discrete devices, we could assess which companies are sending their electronic waste overseas for “recycling.” This information would allow for tighter regulation and, hopefully, an end to the trade in harmful electronic waste.


Many policies have emerged at the International, Federal, local, and industrial levels to address the growing amount of e-waste, its black market trade, and environmental effects.

International Regulation

In the late 1980s, a tightening of environmental regulations in industrialized countries led to a dramatic rise in the cost of hazardous waste disposal. Searching for cheaper ways to get rid of the wastes, “toxic traders” began shipping hazardous waste to developing countries and to Eastern Europe where environmental oversight is weak. However, once discovered, international outrage led to the Basel Convention of which 172 countries (including the United States) drafted and ratified international regulation of hazardous waste.
The central goal of the Basel Convention is “environmentally sound management,” the aim of which is to protect human health and the environment by minimizing hazardous waste production whenever possible through an integrated life cycle approach, which involves strong controls from the generation of a hazardous waste to its storage, transport, treatment, reuse, recycling recovery and final disposal.
Recognizing that the long-term solution of hazardous waste is the reduction in the generation of waste both in terms of hazardousness and quantity, Basel members set forth the following strategic goals.
1. The prevention, minimization, recycling, recovery and disposal of hazardous and other wastes, taking into account social, technological and economic concerns.
2. Active promotion and use of cleaner technologies and production methods;
3. Furthering reduction of movement of hazardous and other wastes, and the prevention and monitoring of illegal traffic.
4. Cooperation and partnership with the public authorities, international organizations, the industry sector, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions.
5. The development of mechanisms for compliance with and for the monitoring and effective implementation of the Convention and its amendments. (Basel Convention, 2009)

Federal Regulation—Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The EPA is the regulatory agency responsible for governing all used electronics within the United States. At present there is no Federal mandate to recycle e-waste. The EPA does, however, govern how to discard some used electronics such as cathode ray tubes (CRTs) computer monitors; color CRT TV tubes, cell phones, and circuit boards.

Large contributors of e-waste:
Wastes from facilities that generate over 220 lb per month of hazardous waste are mandated under Federal law to send all e-waste (as opposed to reuse, refurbishment or recycling) as “hazardous waste” to a permitted hazardous waste landfill.

Small contributors of e-waste:
Businesses, individuals, and other organizations that dispose of (as opposed to reuse, refurbishment or recycling) less 220 pounds per month of hazardous waste are not required to handle this material as hazardous waste. These materials can go to any disposal facility authorized to receive solid waste. (EPA, 2009)

Export Regulations:
The EPA prohibits the export of broken or dismantled computers, TVs, or cell phones. Otherwise exporters only need to notify the EPA, transit country(s), and receiving country, sixty days prior to shipment, and must receive consent before shipment is delivered in order to export used electronics. Moreover, the receiving country does not need to prove the their ability to safely dispose of waste. (EPA, 2009)

Local Policy

Due to the lack of Federal regulation the several States have adopted their own regulation of hazardous waste. This regulation has been diverse. Some have adopted producer responsibility laws. These laws require manufacturers of TVs and computer monitors absorb the costs of processing their branded products that are delivered to consolidators. Some states have adopted consumer-based regulation. Here state law requires an Advance Recycling Fee of $6-$10 charged at the point of sale on video display devices. Other states have adopted landfill disposal fees on solid waste to support a computer and electronic equipment recycling programs, and still others have initiated an outright ban on disposal of electronic waste. (National Center for Electronics Recycling, 2009)

Industry Solutions:

Creative Recycling Systems (CRS) was founded in 1994 with the mission of providing private companies, local, state and federal government and institutions with electronic recycling solutions that represent a viable, economical alternative way to recycle electronic environmentally responsibly.

The company has developed and implemented a state-of-the-art electronic recycling system throughout the southeast and mid west United States. The revolutionary process allows for the recycling of all electronic components under a single computerized process. The system dissects 24,000 pounds of recyclables per hour of which, their engineers boast, only 1% enters the waste stream and of that, all of it is 100% contaminate free. Moreover they note that their specially designed complete dust collection system ensures that the air entering the facility is dirtier than the air leaving.

Creative Recycling Systems CEO Jon A. Yob, points out that with their current capacity CRS could process 300 million pounds of electronic waste per year, and could expand to meet the United States entire recycling needs. But, unfortunately, it remains cheaper for companies to ship their waste overseas. (Creative Recycling Systems, 2009)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Case Study: Guiyu, China

The city of Guiyu and surrounding towns in the Guangdong region of China has been the site of the largest E-waste recycling site in the world since the mid 1990’s. Although the exact amount of E-waste flowing onto this area is unknown due to the fact that it’s illegal and therefore no one keeps records. (Robinson 187) Guiyu has a population of 150,000, and it is estimated that 80% of families have members engaged in e-waste recycling operations. The villagers and migrant workers use environmentally unsound techniques to recycle E-waste, such as, manual removal disintegration of electronic components, open burning to reduce mass and extract precious metals, and open acid digestion to recover precious metals. These crude recycling techniques have resulted in widespread environmental contamination of the surrounding water systems, soils, and air.

Water and Aquatic System

E-waste contaminates enter the water system through the direct dumping of acid waste into streams and ditches, through the settling of airborne particles, or through the leaching of soils. In December 2001, the Basel Action Network (BAN), a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade, conducted a series of tests on the water sediment, and soils along the Lianjiang River, running through Guiyu. The water samples taken showed lead, a toxic metal at high concentrations, at levels 2,400 times greater than the World Health Organizations maximum limits standard. Sediment samples taken reveled levels of Barium 10-times higher, and chromium was 1,338-times greater than the EPA threshold for ecological risks. Cadmium was found to be 52-times greater than EPA sediment screening benchmark. Tin was discovered at levels 152 times the EPA threshold. The study further revealed elevated levels of silver (Ag), lithium (Li), Molybdenum (Mo), antimony (Sb), and Selenium (Se) in the Liangiang River (Exporting Harm, 2002).


Soils located near Guiyu E-waste recycling areas where acid leaching and subsequent dumping, contained numerous and drastically increased amounts of chemicals. While PBDEs (a flame retardant used in computers) are not found naturally in farm soils researchers found the soil contained up to 4250ng/g of PBDEs. They also found very high levels of PCBs 330ng/g, PCDD 100ng/g, dibenzofurans Fs 330ng’g, and PAHs at 20,000 ng/g. These substances have been found to cause genetic damage to plant and animal life. Unfortunately, all of these elements have been found in plant life surrounding Guiyu. Moreover, analysis of rice samples from near Guiyu revealed concentrations of Lead and Cadmium in processed rice to be 2-4 times in excess the maximum allowable concentrations of the elements in marketable food stuffs. Due to these chemicals tendency to cause genetic mutations in plant and animal life, rice-paddy soils near E-waste recycling areas have seen a reduction in the germination of rice. (Exporting Harm, 2002)


The air in Guiyu is also highly contaminated by e-waste dust particle contamination. Air samples near Guiyu contained polychlorodibenzo-p-dioxins between 65 and 2765 pg/cubic meter, the highest level of atmospheric dioxins ever reported. Combustion of e-waste that contains flame retardants (PBDEs) has resulted in concentrations of total PBDEs of up to 16,575 pg/cubic meter in the atmosphere near Guiyu, 300 times higher than in Hong Kong. Daytime aerial contamination of PBDEs in Guiyu exceeds 11,000 pg/cubic meter during the daytime, and drops to 5000pg/cubic meter at night

The Health Effects of E-Waste


The town of Guiyu in the Guangdong Province of China was the largest and highest concentrated site of e-waste in China in the late 1990s. In 2001 the Basel Action Network conducted a series of tests on the water, sediment and soil along the Lianjiang River in Guiyu and their findings are striking. Air near some of the electronics salvage operations contains the highest amounts of dioxin measured in the world. The soils are saturated with dioxins. PBDEs (flame retardants common in electronics and harmful to fetal development) are present in the blood of the electronics workers. Citizens of the town suffer from respiratory and skin diseases, headaches, dizziness, and chronic gastric complaints. They have discolored fingernails and skin rashes (Grossman 2006).

Monitors, printers, toner cartridges, keyboards, circuit boards, cell phones, wires, plastic cases are piled along riverbanks and all contain cadmium, copper, lead, PBDEs that leech into the river and contaminate drinking water, (Exporting Harm, 2002). In the mid 1990s the groundwater in Guiyu and neighboring villages became undrinkable and water now has to be trucked in. But dishes are still done in contaminated groundwater. Water samples taken from the river in 2000 showed lead levels to be 2,400 times higher than levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

Although e-waste recycling is no longer legal in Guiyu, it is still practiced behind closed doors, where the toxic fumes are more concentrated and the practice more deadly.

The e-waste contains many chemicals, with known and unknown health consequences.


-Found in CRTs, the glass funnel and the frit of computer monitors (3-8 lbs per monitor), and circuit boards.
-A neurotoxin, causes damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and reproductive system.

-Low level exposure can impair a child’s mental development.

Brominated Flame Retardants

-Found in the plastic casing of computer monitors and towers, circuit boards, cables and wires to prevent flammability.
-May cause thyroid damage and harm fetal development.


-Found in computer towers’ metal housings and plates as hardening and corrosion protection.
-Inhaling the hexavalent form of chromium can damage the liver, kidneys, cause lung cancer and asthmatic bronchitis.
-Chromium easily passes through cell membranes and can cause damage to DNA, (Exporting Harm, 2002).

-Found in flat panel LCD monitors, circuit boards and switches.

-Can cause brain and kidney damage and is also harmful to the developing fetus because it can pass through breast milk.

-Accumulates in living organisms and concentrates through the food chain.


-Found in computer motherboards.
-Inhalation of beryllium dust, fume or mist causes lung cancer.
-Workers can develop Chronic Beryllium Disiease (beryllicosis), a disease that primarily affects the lungs. The disease can develop many years after the last exposure.

-Exposure also causes a skin disease characterized by poor wound healing and wart like bumps, (Exporting Harm, 2002).

-Found in the phosphorescent coating on the interior of the computer screen, in cables and wires, chip resistors, infrared detectors, semiconductor chips, plastic stabilizers, CRTs, and computer batteries.
-Causes cancer and can damage the bones and kidneys, where it accumulates.

-A metal used in the front panel of CRTs to protect users from radiation.

-Exposure to barium causes brain swelling, muscle weakness, and damage to the heart, liver and spleen, (Exporting Harm, 2002).

Carbon Black

-This is the commercial powder form of carbon. It is used in printer inks.
-Inhalation can lead to respiratory tract irritation. It is also a possible carcinogen.

-Found on the interior of CRT faceplates.

-US Navy gives the following guidelines for dealing with CRTs that contain phosphor: “NEVER touch a CRT’s phosphor coating: it is extremely toxic. If you break a CRT, clean up the glass fragments very carefully. If you touch the phosphor seek medical attention immediately,” (Exporting Harm, 2002).

The Story Behind The Numbers:

While the Guiyu situation and contamination atrocities paint a clear scientific picture of the problem occurring in this, and similar regions, it somewhat dehumanizes the harm that is actually happening. When children have to eat from the same bowl where fresh acid was just used to extrapolate the valuable parts of motherboards and machinery, it doesn't leave much hope for a healthy future for that child.

This excerpt from National Geographic is a graphic display of this ferocious problem:

"Yet for some people it is likely too late; a cycle of disease or disability is already in motion. In a spate of studies released last year, Chinese scientists documented the environmental plight of Guiyu, the site of the original BAN film. The air near some electronics salvage operations that remain open contains the highest amounts of dioxin measured anywhere in the world. Soils are saturated with the chemical, a probable carcinogen that may disrupt endocrine and immune function. High levels of flame retardants called PBDEs—common in electronics, and potentially damaging to fetal development even at very low levels—turned up in the blood of the electronics workers. The high school teacher in Taizhou says his students found high levels of PBDEs in plants and animals. Humans were also tested, but he was not at liberty to discuss the results." (Carroll: NatGeo, 2008)

Air and water are being contaminated to the point of entering the bloodstream of animals and plants! Surely this paints a lovely picture when we know the same is happening in human beings. With compromised immune systems and stunting fetal development, our current recycling methods are preventing populations in these areas from ever developing. In America, we panic at the thought of Heavy Metal Poisoning, and in India and China where this is commonplace, they can't go on dialysis to correct the problem, they die. Unless we want the deaths of people on our bloody hands, then it is our responsibility as the largest exporter of electronic waste to make sure that we duplicate philosophies, such as Apple, Inc. and really make an effort to prevent rampant disposal of electronic waste, making it efficient for the cleanup process, as well as changing the lives of not only countless adults, but innocent children.

Green Chemistry

Below are the "The Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry." These principles list methods for not only preventing the initial problem of hazardous pollution, but also how to reduce the harmful effects of inevitable obsolescence. As E-Waste is currently documented as one of the more harmful contaminants of the natural environment, it becomes paramount that we relate these concepts to the disposal and prevention of high tech trash.

1. Prevention

It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.

2. Atom Economy

Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.

3. Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses

Wherever practicable, synthetic methods should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.

4. Designing Safer Chemicals

Chemical products should be designed to effect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity.

5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries

The use of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used.

6. Design for Energy Efficiency

Energy requirements of chemical processes should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. If possible, synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.

7. Use of Renewable Feedstocks

A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.

8. Reduce Derivatives

Unnecessary derivatization (use of blocking groups, protection/ deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be minimized or avoided if possible, because such steps require additional reagents and can generate waste.

9. Catalysis

Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

10. Design for Degradation

Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment.

11. Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention

Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

12. Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention

Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.


Apple's Successful Implementation of Green Chemistry: Scientific Disposal

Apple has a stringent policy in place to positively affect the global environment, exemplified by the following reductions in both water and recycling output.

By doing so, they are able to mitigate all potential damages by reducing potential harms to the environment. This is what all companies need to start doing, by conscious attention to inventory and tracking, as well as facilitating easier stoichiometric disposal.

Source: Apple, Inc.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Unreguated recycling of electronic waste is putting numerous unstudied and harmful chemicals into the environment. And they aren't going away any time soon. These substances have extremely long life times, and are generally highly mobile, either through biomagnification or through distribution in water and the atmosphere.

Most of the research that has been conducted on the impact of e-waste recycling addresses health concerns, but surprisingly few deal with the effect these same substances might have on the environment. Countless case studies show increasing levels of these toxins in plants, water, soil, air, and organisms, but there is not enough research to make strong conclusions about the specific effects these substances might have on the environment in the future. However, the elevated levels of toxins in the environment are undeniably present and increasing.

As concentration levels continue to rise, effects will likely start to become more pronounced. Also, many of the substances that appear stable in their current situations could become volatile as a result of changes in the climate, particularly with increasing temperatures and acidification of soils and rain water.

A number of these substances are relatively new, do not occur in nature, and have not been studied to assess their potential environmental effects. However, they are getting incorportaed into water, air, plants, animals and people at higher and higher concentrations. Though we can't say for sure what the ramifications will be, it is extremely dangerous for us to allow these unstudied substances to spread throughout ecosystems.

Despite agreement between nations as to the many detrimental effects of e-waste, developing nations have done little to prevent it from leaving their boarders. The September 2008 issue if The Environmental News Service Journal, reported that an investigation commissioned by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Government Accountability Office found that in addition to the EPA's poor enforcement performance, the regulations themselves are too limited to deal with the problem. Exports of electronics flow virtually unrestricted, even to countries where unsafe recycling practices can cause health and environmental problems. Yet despite this criticism the EPA has done nothing to enact stricter e-waste regulation.

State and local authorities have tried to make up for the federal governments lack of regulatory oversight by enacting their own regulation to off set the costs and environmental effects of disposing electronic waste, and private industry has worked to reduce, not only the hazardousness, but also the amount of waste. Additionally, entrepreneurs have developed innovative, cost effective recycling solutions. But ultimately it’s up to us, the consumer, to responsibly discard our unwanted electronic waste.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


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