The dirty and dangerous side of tech
You're reading this article on a laptop, a desktop computer, a tablet, or maybe a smartphone. But if I were to ask you what was inside of your chosen device, you'd likely mention a hard drive, flash storage, RAM, or processor. Some might even say, "I have no idea. I think it operates by magic." Very few would mention arsenic, lead, or mercury. Yet most of our gadgets contain these or other elements and compounds that are dangerous to us and our environment.
Now, I'm not trying to be an alarmist. I love tech, and I always will. I want the lightest yet fastest laptop, the coolest smartphone, the biggest HDTV, and a professional sound system. But I can't remain ignorant to the inconvenient fact that there is poison in our tech. Our gadgets contain thousands of raw elements and mixed compounds—most of which remain inert while we use our gadgets, but they can do considerable harm before we buy our devices and after we've discarded them.
We take our smartphones, computers, and HDTVs for granted, assuming that their only price is the one we paid at the register. But our gadgets are filled with substances that damage the air and water where they're mined, manufactured, and disposed of. Some of the poisons get back to us.
The victims are usually workers living in distant countries, tragically, but not always. Some of these toxic substances leech out in the course of regular use, or when a gadget is damaged. A broken monitor or LCD HDTV, for instance, could expose you to mercury. And every contaminated river in the world empties its toxins into the same ocean that we all depend on.
The biggest dangers occur at three points in a product's life cycle:
Mining: Mining always destroys land, and often poisons the air and water around it. It may not be possible to remove certain scarce minerals from the ground without serious environmental consequences. And even if it is possible, it may not be profitable.
Manufacturing: You don't have to handle the basic ingredients that go into your tech. But someone does, often at high temperatures that release toxins into the air. Tech factory workers often suffer unusually high rates of cancer and other deadly diseases. As I was finishing this article, the South Korean government blamed Samsung for the breast cancer death of a factory employee.
End of life: You probably know better than to throw your old phone into the garbage. You recycle it. (Right?) But what does that actually mean? Far too often, it means that the phone gets shipped to a developing country where it's disassembled and the useful parts are reused. The rest, much of it toxic, is likely thrown onto an unprotected garbage heap.
Some good news is that many of these materials are banned, or tightly controlled, by the European Union. These restrictions can also significantly reduce or eliminate their use elsewhere, since companies would rather not deal with two separate manufacturing processes.
But Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition doesn't find that news all good. "They've stopped using certain chemicals, but what we don't know is what they've been using instead," she told me in a phone interview. "The replacements aren't necessarily better."
What can you do about this problem—aside from selling your car, growing your own food, and swearing off electricity?
First, take into account more than your finances when you consider buying a new gadget. Ask yourself if you could hold off a bit longer before making the purchase. If you buy a new phone every three years instead of every two, you've reduced the harm you do by a third.
Second, when you research what to buy, check the manufacturer's environmental standing. The Ecology Center and iFixIt put together a useful listing of smartphones (ranked according to their toxicity), which is available on HealthyStuff.org. For PCs, check the EPEAT Registry Search. And for a general view of companies' environmental practices, check out Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics.
Third, get rid of your dead and obsolete tech in a responsible manner. Instead of having the manufacturer recycle it for you, visit e-Stewards' Find a Recycler page to see how you can responsibly recycle your tech. You'll find other useful information on the Electronics TakeBack Coalition's Recycle it Right page. (If your tech item is still in good working order, consider reselling or donating it.)
Finally, know what you're dealing with. Learn about the more dangerous materials used in your tech. Here are nine of the most troublesome materials—both pure elements and compounds—that are commonly found in tech gadgets. You may have most of them within arms' reach.
Rare earth minerals
You've likely never heard of promethium, yttrium, europium, or thulium. These are just four of the many elements known collectively as rare earth minerals, rare earth metals, or just rare earths. As the name implies, they're hard to come by.
And they're needed. Look close enough and you'll find them in smartphones, magnets, and HDTVs. They're also important ingredients in many "green" technologies including wind turbines, electric cars, and compact fluorescent light bulbs.
But mining and purifying rare earths is anything but green. The world's center for rare earth mining is the city of Baotou in inner Mongolia, where, according to a Guardian article, "The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukemia."
Some companies, including Molycorp, are looking for greener ways to mine rare earths. How successful they'll be remains to be seen.
Brominated flame retardants
I understand. You really don't want your gadgets to burst into flames. But you probably don't want your future children to be born with birth defects, either. It shouldn't be a choice of one or the other.
The term brominated flame retardants (BFRs) refers to several chemicals that are added to gadgets (and other nontechy products, such as furniture) to reduce the likelihood of fire. Many of them, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are persistent—once they get in your body, they stay there. And as more enter your body, they accumulate.
Studies have shown that PBDEs can affect brain development in the womb, cause birth defects, and interfere with the hormonal system, and may be carcinogenic. The biggest dangers are for the people assembling and disassembling the products. But it's also possible for consumers to be exposed, especially—ironically enough—in a fire.
Your phone may have BFRs, but it's more likely a problem with your monitor or TV. Or your couch and your children's clothes.
Many companies are shying away from BFRs and looking for alternatives. Whether these alternatives will be an improvement is yet to be seen.
You can find this common plastic, usually abbreviated as PVC, in all sorts of things. It's in the outer shell of the cables connecting all of your devices, and probably surrounds your laptop's power brick. If your music collection dates back to before CDs, it's in your records (that's why they're called vinyl). It's used in clothing and pipes. It's cheap and durable and all over the place.
But it's also, according to Greenpeace IT analyst Casey Harrell, the "worst of all plastic." It's been associated with hormonal imbalances, reproductive problems, and various forms of cancer.
The greatest problems come when you throw out a product containing PVCs. It "can't be properly recycled," Harrell told me in an interview. Since it can't be reused, it's usually thrown into a dump or, worse, burned to get at copper wire or other valuable stuff inside. When burned, it can create a harmful, carcinogenic dioxin. In landfills, chemicals leach out, likely contaminating water supplies. The "only way to [dispose of it] properly is to send it to a hazardous waste center."
The good news: Some tech companies, including Apple, have stopped using PVCs.
Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) go hand in hand with polyvinyl chlorides. PVCs are, on their own, quite stiff. Phthalates, a class of chemicals, soften them up, making them flexible without weakening them. Without phthalates, that cable coated with PVCs couldn't bend easily.
These chemicals aren't just found in electronics. You can find phthalates in tablecloths, shower curtains, and toys—at least toys sold in the United States. Phthalates are illegal in children's toys sold in the European Union.
With good reason. According to HealthyStuff.org, phthalates can "disrupt normal hormonal processes, often at low levels of exposure." They're linked to birth defects, asthma, and possibly breast cancer.
And they don't just threaten people far away. They can leach out of your products and into your body. A federal government study, referenced by HealthyStuff.org, found phthalates "in almost all of the population, with the highest levels in children ages 6 to 11 years and in women."
Fortunately, as PVCs disappear, so will phthalates. Getting rid of one will get rid of the other.
Beryllium sounds like a superhero: Stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum, able to conduct electricity in a single bound (or at least really, really well). Add a little bit of beryllium to copper and you've got an alloy that's six times as strong as pure copper. That alloy makes a great fit for springs, connections, and circuit boards.
But for the people who have to work with beryllium (which, by the way, is a difficult-to-mine rare earth metal), it's more like kryptonite. Grinding, shredding, and other manufacturing and disposal tasks produce a fine beryllium dust which can enter workers' lungs. The dust can also contaminate their clothes and shoes, where it may eventually poison their families.
According to a Greenpeace paper, Toxic Tech—Chemicals in Electronics, "beryllium is both acutely and chronically toxic to humans, mainly affecting the lungs." Those who are exposed can suffer from chronic beryllium disease (CBD), which can cause shortness of breath, fatigue, chest and joint pains, loss of appetite, and scarred lung tissue. There is no cure. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies beryllium and beryllium compounds as group 1 carcinogens—the category most likely to cause cancer in humans.
This common element was making people sick back in ancient Rome. Today, manufacturers use lead to solder electronics, making it a possible ingredient in circuit boards. It was also a standard component of CRTs; you might still have one of those in your home.
You don't want lead to find its way into your body. It can damage your nervous system, your kidneys, and your reproductive organs. It's especially bad for children, impeding brain development.
As Greenpeace's Harrell described it, lead is "most dangerous to expecting women. It's really bad for the very young. It's not good for adults, either."
And you don't have to be working in the factory or the recycling plant to get exposed. A 2004 EPA study of electronic items found that they leached lead in concentrations high enough to be considered hazardous.
For that matter, you don't even have to be using tech devices to be exposed. It was a common ingredient in paints and toys until a few decades ago—some of those products are still around.
The good news is that it's much less common—and not just because no one is buying CRTs, anymore. The European Union now restricts lead, and according to Harrell, there's been a significant decrease in its use.
Because it easily reduces electricity consumption and greenhouse gases, the compact fluorescent light bulb has become a symbol of green technology. But break a CFL, and you've got hazardous waste.
And the fluorescent light doesn't have to be compact to be dangerous. The ones backlighting your LCD screen may be just as bad.
Mercury is the culprit. If too much mercury gets into your body, it can affect your central nervous system, digestive system, and kidneys. In the womb, in can impede brain development.
You've probably heard about people getting mercury poisoning from eating fish. That's not entirely separate from the fluorescent light problem. Mercury can't hurt you while it's in the contained light. But if a light—or an LCD monitor—is broken, thrown away, or incinerated, the mercury inside it can escape into the ground, flow into the water table, find an ocean and eventually, enter the food chain.
And no, not all of that mercury comes from fluorescent lights. Mercury is also used for medical purposes, the manufacture of industrial chemicals, and has been used in the past in thermometers and cosmetics.
Fortunately, more and more LCD screens these days use LED rather than fluorescent back-lighting. But there's still plenty of mercury around, and much of it is probably in your home.
If you were an early adopter of rechargeable batteries, you may still have some nickel-cadmium AAAs floating around. These need to be disposed of properly; when they can no longer carry a charge, they're essentially hazardous waste.
Resistant to corrosion and good at conducting electricity, cadmium has other uses. It's the primary ingredient of cadmium telluride solar panels—which are cheaper to manufacture than the more conventional silicon panels. It's used in electroplating, and in electronic contacts, switches, and wire insulation.
Aside from the random leaky battery, it probably won't hurt you—assuming your job doesn’t require you to work with it directly. But for people in manufacturing or disassembly jobs, cadmium produces significant risks.
According to a United States Department of Labor report, "A vast amount of literature exists which documents the adverse health effects from acute and chronic exposure to cadmium in both humans and animals." Most of the harm comes when people inhale the element, although it's also possible to accidentally swallow it. It might be absorbed through the skin. And it can be a factor in lung cancer and can harm the liver and kidneys.
Now also regulated by the European Union, cadmium use is decreasing.
You probably already associate the word arsenic with poison, perhaps in connection with some old murder mystery. Taken in doses well below those that are immediately fatal, arsenic can still do plenty of harm.
If it builds up in a human body, arsenic can weaken the immune system and damage the kidneys. It's also been associated with lung, skin, and bladder cancer.
Until a few years ago, arsenic was an important ingredient for doping circuit boards—a small amount was added to the silicon, enabling it to better conduct electricity. As such, it contained no significant danger to consumers, but a serious one to workers manufacturing or disposing of circuit boards.
By now, arsenic has largely been phased out of tech work. But your older tech toys may still have it so be extra careful how you recycle them.
Take a good, hard look at your computer, your smartphone, your television, and all of your other tech toys. Between them, you almost certainly have some arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, beryllium, phthalates, polyvinyl chlorides, brominated flame retardants, and rare earth minerals. It's not a comfortable thought. However, we can all make our tech—and ourselves—safer just by being aware of the impact our devices have. Fix gadgets instead of replacing them when possible, resell or donate outdated tech, freecycle or donate old cords, cables, and connectors, buy items with less packaging, avoid buying products that may seem cheap initially—but are only designed to last a year before getting dumped, and make sure that you're responsibly disposing of broken devices. If we're capable of building a smartphone that can connect to the internet in a blink of an eye, surely we're capable of a little extra effort to keep it from winding up in a landfill when the next great device comes along.
Aviva Prager assisted in research for this article.