By Rachelle Gordon July 9, 2015

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about electronic waste, better known as “e-waste.” The amount of electronic devices that are broken or obsolete is skyrocketing, leaving some clueless about what to do with their out of date cell phone or a tablet computer that no longer works. Unwanted e-waste cannot simply be tossed in the trash, as most electrics contain different elements, heavy metals or other dangerous substances that can be harmful to the planet and its ecosystems. E-waste must be discarded at a special processing center or drop site. Didn’t know there were toxins in your computers or televisions? Here are five of the worst – yet most common – offenders.

1. Lead

Since the discovery that exposure to lead can cause severe abdominal, brain and nervous system damage, people have done their best to avoid it. However, this metal is the fifth most commonly used across the world, behind iron, aluminum, copper and zinc. Lead is often used in the electronics industry; most often found in older computer monitors, batteries and printed wiring boards that you would find within most devices. Be very careful when handling broken devices mentioned above, especially around kids – the hazardous side effects of lead are particularly dangerous for children.

2. Cadmium

Cadmium is a chemical element – its symbol is Cd with an atomic number of 48. Mostly found in rechargeable batteries, printer ink/toner and CRT screens, this toxin has been shown to cause serious damage to the kidneys and lungs. The big problem with cadmium is its long half-life, meaning even a small amount of exposure could have long-lasting effects in the human body. Acute exposure to this element may cause flu-like symptoms that should be taken seriously – in addition to lung cancer and kidney damage, cadmium has been shown to cause pulmonary emphysema and osteoporosis. It is vital to avoid exposure, especially when handling printer ink and must be disposed of properly.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is all around us – the plastic is the most widely used across the board and can be found in everything from electronics, appliances, pipes and even upholstery. It is often used as a cable protectant for all sorts of wires and cables both inside and out of your devices. PVC is extremely dangerous to the environment when it is burned, releasing high amounts of hydrogen chloride gas. The plastic is often melted off of wiring to expose the copper within (a very valuable commodity) or burned at illegal dumping sites in developing countries. The gas that is exposed can form hydrochloric acid when mixed with water, spelling danger for both the environment and people who are exposed. Prolonged inhalation to this toxin can cause severe respiratory, skin and intestinal issues.

4. Mercury

Another one of the most toxic elements found in e-waste is mercury and, once again, is one that is widely used across the electronics space. Found in flat screen monitors, fluorescent light bulbs, batteries and mobile phones, mercury is extremely dangerous and must be handled with extreme care. In humans, mercury exposure (often called poisoning) can lead to impaired cognitive skills, nervous system damage and liver failure. Many countries have passed legislation in order to prevent high amounts of mercury in products, but it’s still ever present. In developing countries, where e-waste is often illegally dumped, the amount of mercury seeping from landfills into soil and water sources is growing every year.

5. Beryllium

Most often found in computer motherboards, the element beryllium was recently named as a human carcinogen as prolonged exposure can lead to lung cancer. Most consumers aren’t at too much risk of exposure to beryllium, but people who process e-waste are as a result of the exposure to the element’s dust and fumes. Laborers who are constantly exposed to beryllium – even in small amounts – are at extreme risk of Chronic Beryllium Disease, which damages the lungs and upper respiratory system. Unfortunately, studies have shown that people can still develop this disease even if many years have passed since exposure.