Dangers of e-Waste
There is now evidence of harmful health effects from the components of e-waste that affect almost every system in the human body. Mercury and lead are two toxic substances in e-waste that most people know have health dangers. Many lesser known metals, such as cadmium, are also found in e-waste. Cadmium is a highly toxic metal that represents a major hazard to human health that is especially damaging to the kidneys and can remain in the body for decades.
Selenium is often used in photocells, light meters and solar cells due to its good photovoltaic and photoconductive properties. Exposure can result in brittle hair, deformed nails, rashes, swelling of the skin and severe pain.1
Used in alloys with copper or nickel to make gyroscopes, springs and electrical contacts. Exposure may cause adverse health effects such as acute beryllium disease and lung cancer.2
Contained in many products, including batteries, thermometers and lamps. Inhalation can cause damage to the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.3
4. Chromium (IV) - Hexavalent Chromium
Mainly used for making steel and other alloys, exposure can result in gastrointestinal and neurological effects as well as bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory issues.4
Used in the production of LEDs (light-emitting diodes), exposure may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heart beat, damage to blood vessels and a feeling of "pins and needles" in hands and feet.5
6. Trichloroethylene (TCE)
Commonly used as a refrigerant, TCE exposure can adversely affect the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, and skin. Chronic exposure can also affect the central nervous system.6
Commonly found in batteries, adverse effects include bone fracture, psychological disorders, cancer, and damage to reproductive systems, central nervous system, immune system, and possibly DNA.7
Used in printed circuit boards, CRTs, light bulbs and more, prolonged exposure may increase risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility.8
9. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Used largely as coatings for computer cables and wires. Acute exposure has caused loss of consciousness, lung and kidney irritation, and inhibition of blood clotting.9
Most widely used in glass panels for CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes), exposure may cause breathing issues, increased/decreased blood pressure, numbness around the face and muscle weakness.10
11. Brominated flame retardants (BFRs)
Commonly used to make materials more flame resistant, BFRs are associated with endocrine, reproductive, and behavioral effects.11
12. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
PCBs have been shown to cause cancer as well as affecting the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems. Before the 1979 ban, PCBs were most commonly used in transformers and capacitors.12
13. Dioxins and Furans
Likely to be a cancer causing substance, dioxins and furans are released during burning of wires and plastics, as well as shredding and other dismantling processes. Exposure can affect hormon levels, fetus development, the ability to reproduce and a suppressed immune system.13
How are people exposed to the toxins contained in e-waste? As explained by the World Health Organization:
E-waste-connected health risks may result from direct contact with harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), from inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food. In addition to its hazardous components, being processed, e-waste can give rise to several toxic by-products likely to affect human health.
Mercury vapor can be released by the improper dismantling of electronic devices, such as by breaking flat panel screens, which then become an inhalation hazard as well as a potential source of ground and water contamination. However, incineration or burning e-waste is by far the most dangerous source of toxins released into the air. Education and outreach programs have fortunately reduced 95% of municipal incineration of e-waste in the United States.
However, many rudimentary e-waste “processing plants” are not ethically run – or safe. For example, some e-waste “recyclers” burn electronic cables and wires to get to the copper inside. The open burning can release hydrocarbons into the air, while the chemical stripping of gold-plated computer chips leads to emissions of brominated dioxins and heavy metals. One study of the environmental effects of the largest e-waste landfill in the world (in Guiyu, China), found airborne dioxins to be 100 times more prevalent than previously measured.
Improper disposal of electronics in the ground can result in toxic metals leeching into the surrounding soil. Toxins entering the “soil-crop-food pathway” is one of the most common ways that heavy metals enter the human body. Cadmium and other heavy metals in the ground are readily absorbed by food crops.
Run off from improper or primitive processing techniques can pollute waterways and ultimately carry toxins into lakes and the oceans.
Also, cathode ray tubes (CRTs), often found in older televisions, video cameras and computer monitors, are often broken apart, the yoke removed, and the shell dumped. Contents in the shell, such as lead and barium, could leach through the soil and into the ground water of local communities. This endangers not just the people who drink and bathe with this water but also the different species of wildlife that rely on the water to sustain.
Knowing what we do about the health and environmental hazards that present themselves when e-waste is not recycled responsibly, why would anyone export e-waste from the United States to developing nations in Africa and Asia? Unfortunately, it is a cost issue. It is cheaper to put e-waste on a container ship than to responsibly recycle it. Electronics recycling is labor intensive and requires specialized equipment to responsibly recycle in accordance with industry recognized standards and to safeguard people and the environment.
Is it illegal to export e-waste from the US under current US law? Generally, no. Is it unethical? Absolutely, yes.
Brokers in other countries around the world are willing to accept or even pay for e-waste because it can be lucrative in developing countries to resell e-waste for the recovery of valuable metals using primitive recovery techniques, regardless of the health hazards and damage to the environment.
The World Health Organization aptly describes the situation as “children of the urban mines:”
Using primitive techniques, workers extract valuable metals from computers, large appliances, lights, televisions and batteries, often with little protective equipment (UNU, 2014). Children are often used because their small hands are ideal for handling and dismantling small parts. To separate valuable metal from computers, phones and other electronic devices, acid is poured on circuit boards and plastic-coated wires are burned, releasing lead, mercury, copper, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, PCBs, PBDEs and other flame retardants into the environment and directly exposing young workers to highly toxic substances which can produce adverse neurodevelopmental impacts even at low exposure levels. E-waste is also found in landfill and waste sites, where it is collected by children for dismantling and sale of the commercially valuable parts.
Not in my back yard!
As we are faced with mounting reports of municipalities and school systems that have had e-waste found in developing countries, the concern over and prevention of the exportation of e-waste to the developing world is clearly a discussion of social responsibility and ethics.
But e-waste improperly processed and disposed of in developing countries, while irresponsible, doesn’t hurt someone in the United States, right? Wrong.
What happens to mercury vapor after it is released to the atmosphere depends on a variety of factors such as surrounding terrain and weather at the point of release. As noted by the U.S. EPA:
Depending on these factors, mercury in the atmosphere can be transported over a range of distances -- anywhere from a few feet from its source, to halfway around the globe -- before it is deposited in soil or water. Mercury that remains in the air for prolonged periods of time and travels across continents is said to be in the "global cycle."
Improper handling of e-waste in developing countries, such as smashing flat panel televisions, can release mercury vapor into the air where it contaminates soil and water nearby – or even potentially halfway around the world to our own backyards here in the United States.
As previously noted, toxins entering the soil-crop-food pathway is one of the most common ways that heavy metals enter the human body. The US FDA has stated that 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 50 percent of fresh fruits, 20 percent of fresh vegetables, and 80 percent of seafood.
It is a small (and shrinking) world, and exporting large amounts of e-waste from developed nations such as the United States has ramifications throughout the world, including locally.
Focus on the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT)
Since 2010, CRTs have all but gone the way of the dinosaur. CRTs were first commercialized almost 100 years ago and over the last half of the 20th century were the main video display technology for televisions, computer monitors, electronic test equipment, and arcade games.
Based on EPA data, 704.9 million CRT televisions were sold in the U.S. alone from 1980 to 2008. An estimated 42.4 percent of those were still in use in 2008. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it is a reasonable assumption that billions of CRTs have been produced globally over the years.
Unlike dinosaurs though, CRTs are not extinct. CRTs are still used in a limited way for avionics, military, and medical applications; some video gamers prefer CRTs for responsiveness; and on any given day there may be a thousand CRT televisions and monitors for sale on eBay. But an untold number exist in attics, garages, warehouses, and even in abandoned facilities of bankrupt recyclers.
Older color and monochrome CRTs may have been manufactured with toxic substances, such as cadmium, in the phosphors. The rear glass tube of modern CRTs may be made from leaded glass, which represents an environmental hazard if disposed of improperly. By the time personal computers were produced, glass in the front panel (the viewable portion of the CRT) used barium rather than lead though the rear of the CRT was still produced from leaded glass.
The average CRT is estimated to contain four pounds of lead, so CRTs remain a serious environmental hazard today and for the foreseeable future.
ERI and Green Initiatives
Green living, green working and sustainability are all a core part of ERI’s DNA. We don’t just talk about green initiatives, we lead them. From the lighting in our facilities to our innovative recycling kits, we are passionate about sustainability in everything we do. From collection events for corporations and municipalities to public education, we demonstrate that Green is, indeed, Good!