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April 2007

Electronic Waste: A Public Health Issue

T

he management of electronic waste (e-waste) at the end of its useful life has presented serious challenges to the existing solid waste and hazardous waste management structures, resulting in widespread contamination of the environment1. What is less well known are the public health impacts of production, use and end of life management of electronic products. Current electronic waste management contributes to increasing levels of toxic chemicals building up in our bodies The chemical body burden of the human population has been steadily increasing; based on a study by the CDC, each of us now carries an average of 150 chemicals in our body, residues of our industrial lifestyle.2 And this is only for the chemicals that have been tested – many tens of thousands more are used in the marketplace today. According to studies performed by the Environmental Working Group, of the 171 residues tested in 9 volunteers, on average 56 were known carcinogens.3 Dangerous chemicals are released when electronic products are manufactured, used, and disposed at end of life. Some of these chemicals are toxic in small amounts and have the ability to accumulate in our fatty tissues through the food we eat and the dust in the air we breathe. These toxins also become more highly concentrated as they move up the food chain and can be passed on to our children. Chemicals of high concern are known variously as PBTs (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic) or POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants.) PBTs are defined by the U.S. EPA as chemicals that are toxic, persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in food chains and, thus, pose risks to human health and ecosystems.4 The POPs are

twelve chemicals (the Dirty Dozen) targeted for global elimination by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.5 The original Dirty Dozen POPS chemicals are mostly organochlorine pesticides such as chlordane, dieldrin and DDT, but the list also includes toxic by-products of electronics manufacturing and disposal such as dioxins and furans. Other chemicals, including a class of brominated flame retardants commonly used in consumer electronics, are being considered for adoption to the POPS list. Health advocates are becoming very concerned as studies continue to show high concentrations of PBTs and POPs in human blood across the globe. Many POPs are also endocrine disruptors, known to disrupt the hormone system. These chemicals are particularly hazardous to the developing fetus and young children whose reproductive systems are still forming. Some of these toxic chemicals are the

by-products of electronics manufacturing, while others are found in electronic products themselves. When electronics are not properly recycled, their plastic casings are often burned, releasing PBTs and POPs that can reach people thousands of miles away. Even small amounts of these extremely dangerous toxins can injure human health. This is one reason why e-waste should not be incinerated, even in “waste to energy” facilities. Often e-waste – much of it exported from the US – is sorted, disassembled and burned in the open in villages in Asia creating severe local pollution as well as contributing to the global build up of POPs. People and the environment are exposed throughout the lifecycle of electronic products Workers, consumers and communities are exposed to the chemicals contained in consumer electronics throughout their life cycle, from manufacture through use and

disposal. Responsible recycling of electronics reduces some of their health and environmental impacts, but many current recycling practices still need to be improved. Workers: Electronics workers have been shown to have high exposure to carcinogens and reproductive toxicants, including solvents, heavy metals and epoxy resins, during production.6 Women working in semiconductor fabrication showed increased rates of spontaneous abortion and birth...
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