How E-waste Works
These are just a few examples of devices that are part of the growing phenomenon known as e-waste. E-waste is the term used to describe discarded electronics and electrical products. In the past few decades, the world’s demand for gadgetry has gone through the roof and, inevitably, more waste has started to accumulate. As the bustling economies of China and India modernize and follow more Western trends, the worldwide generation of e-waste has hit astronomical proportions.
So what happens to all that e-waste? E-waste contains a bonanza of toxic and hazardous components that, for the most part, are currently being shunted into landfills. Much of the remaining portion is exported to developing nations, where many laborers, working under unsafe, unregulated conditions, recycle this e-waste. The work these laborers do, while it does provide some raw materials that can be reused, comes with some serious consequences.
At present, we’re just beginning to realize how serious those consequences are. Long-term exposure to small doses of toxins is less understood than the effects of those toxins in larger doses. In all likelihood, it’s dangerous to spend your days touching fragments of toxic metals like lead and mercury. Common sense implies that inhaling the fumes from flame-retardant chemicals and highly corrosive acids isn’t a good idea. And dumping byproducts of this recycling process into drinking-water sources can’t be good for anyone.
The upshot is people have begun taking notice of these conditions, and several initiatives to protect the environment and human health have gained traction recently. Governments from around the world are passing regulations to curtail e-waste, and an increasing number of industrial improvements pop up every day.
On the next page, we’ll look at what exactly is in e-waste that makes it so hazardous and why your old toaster isn’t trying to kill you (well, at least not on purpose).
In many instances, the only visible part of an electronic product is its outer shell. Unless that casing is broken, we rarely see the myriad circuit boards, wiring and electrical connections that make the device actually function.
But it’s those inner mechanical organs that are so valuable and so toxic. A whole bouquet of heavy metals, semimetals and other chemical compounds lurk inside your seemingly innocent laptop or TV. E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold. Many of these elements are used in circuit boards and comprise electrical parts such as computer chips, monitors and wiring. Also, many electrical products include various flame-retardant chemicals that might pose potential health risks. To learn more about the dangers of a common toxic component like lead, read Why do CRTs contain lead?
When these elements are safely encased in our refrigerators and laptops, e-waste dangers aren’t much of an issue. Problems can occur when devices break — intentionally or accidentally. Then they can leak and contaminate their immediate environment, whether that’s in a landfill or on the streets within a region full of struggling laborers. Over time, the toxic chemicals of a landfill’s e-waste can seep into the ground (possibly entering the water supply) or escape into the atmosphere, affecting the health of nearby communities. As we discussed on the previous page, the jury is still out on the danger level of this e-waste contamination, but it’s safe to assume that the results are probably not good.
People are beginning to discuss the serious aspects of this pollution in terms of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Bioaccumulation occurs when people, plants and animals build up levels of toxic substances in their bodies faster than they can get rid of them. Biomagnification occurs when toxin levels accumulate within the food chain. For example, plankton might absorb low levels of mercury. Then fish that eat large amounts of plankton ingest an even larger, unhealthier dose. The problem continues as birds or humans eat the mercury-tainted fish.
Researchers in the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research Program have compiled a list of the effects that some of these toxins take on the human body. Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list of all the suspected health effects of these metals. Also, this list mentions only some of the chemicals and compounds used in household products.
- Arsenic may disrupt cell communication and interfere with the triggers that cause cells to grow, possibly contributing to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes if someone is exposed in chronic, low doses.
- Cadmium affects your body’s ability to metabolize calcium, leading to bone pain and severely weakened, fragile bones.
- Chromium can cause skin irritation and rashes and is potentially carcinogenic.
- Copper can irritate the throat and lungs and affect the liver, kidneys and other body systems.
- Lead poisoning can cause a whole slew of health problems including the impairment of cognitive and verbal activity. Eventually, lead exposure can cause paralysis, coma and death.
- Nickel is carcinogenic in large doses.
- Silver probably won’t hurt you, but handle it too frequently and you might come down with a case of argyria — a condition that permanently stains your skin a blue-gray shade.
[Source: Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research Program]
Now that we know about the dangerous parts lurking behind our computer screens and favorite electronics, let’s focus on what’s being done to address the issue of e-waste.
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