One of the worst effects of a skyrocketing, global e-waste crisis is the risk of toxic contamination for the environment and communities. In fact, delving into the many chemical and heavy metal materials that make up most electronic devices, it seems that toxins and electronics go hand in hand. Though many manufacturers of electronic devices are finding innovative ways to work around toxins found in e-waste, there is still a long journey ahead before realizing completely toxin-free devices.
How much damage can an electronic device actually cause? If an electronic devices is indeed as toxic as electronic recycling advocates point out, how is the average consumer capable of safely using these devices in the first place? The answers to these questions and more can help to build consumer awareness about the underlying issues concerning e-waste and perhaps even encourage more of the much-needed recycling the world requires.
But, first, it always helps to understand the problem.
The problem with e-waste (and its toxins)
More and more, it’s the gargantuan size of the e-waste stream that lies at the heart of the problem with e-waste. Too much waste, from vast piles of household trash to truckloads of construction debris, has long been at the root of recycling issues across the globe. In cities all across America we are simply running out of spaces and places to stash our trash.
Currently, electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in America. Even though statistics show that electronic devices represent a small percentage of our overall waste output, the rate at which this particularly booming waste stream is expanding has even the EPA taking major steps to address the problem.
In fact, the EPA reported that in 2010, 2.4 million tons of electronics were discarded. By 2011, Americans consumed at least $1,000 worth of electronics per household, and bought close to $216 billion worth of electronic devices in 2013. Increases in electronic device trade-ins, upgrades and sales mean the inevitable torrent of trashed devices and continued increases in e-waste streams across America.
For electronics, the issues go even further than numbers and statistics. Beyond the precious space taken up in landfills by large electronic devices like appliances and the soaring production and consumption numbers of electronic devices from handhelds to flat-screens, there are the toxins to consider.
In fact, today’s average-size electronic devices can contain several types of hazardous and toxic materials. Below, we’ll take a look at a few of the most common and well-known toxins found in electronic devices and consider a number of environmental and health risks posed by e-waste.
Electronic toxins: An overview
Brominated flame-retardants can be found in nearly every electronic device. These are used in structural materials to prevent devices from being completely destroyed by fire. Though these chemicals have a noble cause, their effects after disposal can be less than ideal.
BFRs are well known for causing hormonal disorders once the dust from incineration is inhaled. These can lead to behavioral problems and learning disabilities when the exposure is long term. Even worse, BFRs are difficult to break down in natural environments and so pose a high risk of remaining in soil and water long after a device is discarded. For these reasons, many electronics manufacturers are fortunately stepping away from the use of these toxic materials.
Chromium is yet another material used with good intentions in the electronic industry. This substance prevents corrosion and can increase conductivity of electrical impulses. Though most types of chromium and its oxides are relatively harmless, there is one form, Chromium VI, which can present serious negative consequences for the human body.
Found mostly in data tapes and floppy disks, this substance is easily absorbed even at the cellular level and can cause irritation to the mucous membranes as well as DNA damage.
The dangerous effects of lead and lead poisoning have been highlighted by the ongoing fight to warn residents of older homes and workspaces. Many of these living spaces were built using lead- based paints and other materials that were not known to be as dangerous at the time. Yet, one source of lead is highly prevalent in our current modern age: electronics.
In fact, a number of electronics, particularly those containing cathode ray tubes, house this toxic metal. CRTs can be found in a number of household devices, such as the LCD screens of televisions, computers and laptops. The problem is that once these devices are discarded, the lead becomes a potential danger to the environment and to nearby communities.
Lead exposure even in small amounts can cause severe impairments in children and multisystem breakdown in adults. Even short-term exposure can cause vomiting and diarrhea. This means that lead not only poses dangerous health risks if not properly discarded, but also that workers at plants manufacturing electronic devices could be at risk.
The dangers of mercury exposure are also well known, but readers may be surprised to find that even household electronic devices contain a number of mercury-based parts. Switches, thermostats, batteries and fluorescent lamps all contain mercury. Even the devices used to light up the ever-popular flat-screen displays contain mercury. When this heavy metal is not properly discarded, it can cause both brain and liver damage as well as central nervous system deterioration.
It is difficult to imagine what life would be like without PVC plastics. Yet, the dangers and environmental risks associated with this material have surfaced over the past few decades to reveal that perhaps our dependence on its advantages should wane.
PVC plastic forms the makeup of a slew of electronic devices, from computer keyboards to sound system speakers. PVC can also be found in cable insulation and electronics wiring. Serious issues arise when PVC is incinerated. The chlorine gas released can combine with water to produce hydrochloric acid — a chemical that can lead to serious respiratory issues.
Toxins in e-waste: A dangerous list
The toxins listed here are just a handful of the hazardous chemicals and heavy metals that can be found in electronic devices. It is important to emphasize that once these devices are discarded the toxins contained within can quickly seep into soil and water and dissipate into the air. They may even combine with other materials to produce cumulative effects that can be extremely harmful to both the environment and human health — posing a serious threat to the overall sustainability, and well being, of the planet.