A man in Guiyu, China, heats a combination of nitric and hydrochloric acid, while inhaling acid fumes, chlorine and sulfur dioxide, without respiratory protection. Leftover acids and sludge are dumped in the river.

Photo courtesy Basel Action Network 2001

E-waste Dangers

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.