School of Public Health

Electronic Waste (PubH 6101)

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November 14, 2008

Raw Materials and Electronics Manufacturing

By Sarah Henderson

The mining of materials used to manufacture electronics takes a heavy toll on the environment. Mining accounts for an estimated 7- 10 percent of the world’s energy. Most of this energy comes from oil and coal and is used to power the huge machines used throughout the mining process. Recycling can reduce this amount of energy. For example, recycling copper uses only 15 – 20 percent the energy needed to mine new ore.

Mining causes impurities to be released into the air and travel into surrounding streams and groundwater. Toxics released into the air can include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and lead. In the United States, mining releases more toxics into the air than any other industry. One example of mining air pollution is in a copper, lead and zinc plan in Peru, where emissions caused almost all the children in the community to suffer from lead poisoning. Other negative impacts of mining include soil degradation and negative health impacts on mine workers.

The toxic by-products of mining include arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium, which run off into the streams as well as the groundwater. Everywhere mining has taken place, contaminated water is pervasive. Tailings are by-products of mining that are deposited as solid waste once the valuable ores have been extracted. Tailings from copper mines contain sulfates, lead, arsenic, cadmium and zinc. When the sulfites are exposed to air or water it creates sulfuric acid, which is corrosive and toxic to aquatic life. If the sulfates mix in the water with residual copper and heavy metals, the chemical combination is toxic to wildlife and people who use the water.

The two different kinds of mines are open-pit mines and underground mines. They use a huge amount of water and energy and soil degradation. Both mines also create tailings and negatively impact the environment. Underground mines have health risks such as dust, which leads to respiratory problems in workers. Other health risks include fires and tunnel collapses.

Most metals come from open-pit mines. This results in a huge amount of waste rock and rubble. The craters formed by open-pit mines are huge and disrupts the natural topographic ecology. For example, to mine the two pounds of copper needed to produce a desktop computer has a result of 620 pounds of waste rock. Many of these mines are huge, some bigger than Bagdad. The other impact of open-pit mines are great shifts in local water supplies. If the depth of a mining pit is lower than the water table there is a risk of dewatering nearby streams and even the immediate aquifer. This happens because the pit must be pumped to keep it dry and workable, at the same time, water from this source is used for dust control as well as other mining operations.

Coltan is a material which is the major source for tantalum, which is highly heat and corrosion resistant as well as an excellent conductor of electricity. Tantalum is used in tiny capacitors, which store an electronic charge. This material is relatively rare and expensive and is used in small electronic devices such as cell phones.
While the Democratic Republic of the Congo only produces 1% of the world’s tantalum, this area is a concern due to illegal mining and smuggling which has funded military occupation in the area. This is a similar case to diamond mining in Africa in that it is very difficult to trace the material to where it was mined once it enters the international market due to a lack of an official auditable process. There is also a concern the DRC that mining will negatively impact the threatened eastern lowland gorilla.

Computer production entails the fabrication of silicon and semiconductors. While the mining of silicon has limited environmental impact, the processing of the material involves many toxic chemicals and creates numerous waste products. Silicon production is a process which is materials and energy intensive. It is not possible to recycle silicon at the chip level, because the finished product is so specific to a task. Used chips are disposed in landfills, and there is no evidence that disposing them in this way has harmful effects. Other semiconductors include germanium, gallium arsenide and indium phosphide.

Improvements have been made to limit the environmental effects of computer production. The members of the Electronics Industries Alliance created the “product material declaration program? where it is required for all materials that go into an electronic product to be declared. In the United States materials declarations are included in purchasing policies. Environmental health and safety reports show environmental improvements in silicon production including less water being used, less energy, a smaller volume of chemicals, less toxics released into the air and water and less greenhouse and ozone emissions. Recycling also plays a huge role in lessening the environmental impact of producing new electronics. The materials that can be recycled include copper, gold, zinc, silver and tantalum.


High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, HIdden Toxics, and Human Trash, Elizabeth
Grossman, Island Press, 2006.

November 15, 2008

Environmental Health Hazards in Electronic Waste Disposal

Harms of Dumping Electronics in Landfills
By Kelly Baker

In addition to the deleterious effects of mining, the disposal of electronics is similarly hazardous. When electronics are disposed of, they are sent to a landfill or a recycling organization. When electronics are dumped in landfills without first being processed to remove harmful substances located in the electronics, these substances accumulate and can pollute our water and food system. Examples of hazardous substances found inside of electronics include: lead, cadmium , mercury , hexavalent chromium (Chromium VI) , and brominated flame retardants. The harmful effects of these substances include, but are not limited to:

- Damages central and peripheral nervous system
- Damages kidneys
- Damages brain development in children
- Accumulates in body over time

- Accumulates in body (and specifically kidneys) over time
- Classified toxin and carcinogen
- May cause irreversible health effects

- Damages brain

Hexavalent Chromium
- Several toxic effects
- Asthmatic bronchitis
- possible DNA damage

Brominated Flame Retardant
- Possible endocrine disrupters
- Possible carcinogen

There is evidence that electronics have great potential to accumulate and adversely affect environmental health. It is estimated that 40% of the lead in landfills originates from electronics disposal. Further, another estimate shows that 22% of worldwide mercury consumption is due to its’ use in electronics.. Minnesota and other states have enacted legislation to eliminate dumping of electronics in landfills. It is important to note also is that the European Union has completely banned all disposal of electronics in their landfills.

Electronics should be recycled in order to prevent the harmful accumulation of these substances in our landfills. There are both ‘clean’ and appropriate methods to recycle electronics, and also ‘dirty’, or unsafe ways to recycle these substances.

An example the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition gives of a clean method of recycling electronics is practiced by Micro Metalics, which processes used HP Computers. This organization is located in the United States, the workers are unionized and are involved in the safety board of the organization. Further, the recycling system is mechanized, there is an Intranet where workers can research safety issues if they care to. Similarly, as the European Union has banned the disposal of electronic waste in landfills, and has similarly banned the exportation of this waste to other countries for processing , they should have similar ‘clean’ systems set up.

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Domestic ‘dirty’ recycling
According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and The Computer TakeBack Campaign (2003) – American prisoners in the Atwater prison in California are employed for $.20 - $1.26/hour to recycle electronics. These workers work in poor, and dangerous conditions. For example, as prisoners are not allowed to work with heavy machinery, they must break the electronics apart by hand with hammers, which naturally leads to frequent lacerations and exposure to substances. Furthermore, these prisoners are not protected by the same environmental laws enjoyed by U.S. citizens, there is a lack of disclosure practices in these prisons, and workers do not have a strong voice to advocate for reform of this system. While there has been little to no study of prison workers’ health, it is known that the potential for exposure to hazardous substances is great. As an inmate at this prison who states, “Even when I wear the paper mask, I blow out black mucus from my nose everyday?

International ‘dirty’ recycling
The United States does export a significant amount of our electronics overseas for developing countries to process, as it is costly to cleanly recycle materials, and it is not unheard of for some developing nations to bypass environmental regulations for economic gain. Such countries where exportation is common include China, Taiwan, Nigeria, India, and Kenya.

Michael Zhao is a community activist who put together several short videos that documents both research completed by professors and graduate students at Shantou University, as well as also documenting work doen by the Computer TakeBack organization regarding electronic waste.

According to Zhao, the Shantou University specifically researched Guiyu city in China. This city is almost entirely based on recycling electronic waste, and workers do so in very dangerous conditions. Electronics are stripped apart by people’s bare hands, no safety equipment is used. People also heat up circuit boards and other machinery to better separate the materials, which releases toxic vapor into the air, and is inhaled by the workers and others. Professor Huo Xia of the College of Medicine in Shantou University states, “We found cases of hair loss, headache, and swollen and callous skin infections and skin damages after getting burned or corroded by chemicals…There are also cases of nausea, sore throats and other respiratory illness.?

Zheng Liangkai, a masters student at Shantou University sampled 149 children in 2004, ages 1-6. This sample showed that these children had 82% more than the Center for Disease Control threshold for lead poisoning. In a 2006 re-sample, the level of lead poisoning did drop to 70%, which while improving, is still a great threat to these children. Han Dai, a masters student also at Shantou University, found the IQ scores of children in Guiyu was far lower than the IQ levels of children in surrounding villages. These differences in IQ scores is attributed by the researchers to the high levels of lead these children have been exposed to through living in Guiyu. Similarly, Li Yan, a Masters student at Shantou University, tested the neural behavioral scores of babies in Guiyu and in the similar cities in the surrounding region. Again, the researchers found that Guiyu children had remarkably lower neural behavioral scores than the surrounding areas.

In all, it seems clear that while electronics need to be recycled to ensure that toxic substances do not end up in our landfills, we need to recycle these materials in a socially responsible way. It is clearly in our best interest to ensure that electronics are recycled cleanly, and that harmful substances are disposed of properly.


Davis, Sheila and Ted Smith. “Corporate Strategies for Electronic Recycling: A Tale of Two Systems?. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Computer TakeBack Campaign!

“Minnesota’s Electronics Recycling Act?. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Nov. 2008.

Zhao, Michael. “eDump?.