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5. Unregulated E-Waste Recycling

When you send an old computer or CRT monitor off for recycling, chances are it will wind up in a junkyard halfway around the world rather than being dismantled safely nearby. Used hardware from the industrialized world often travels thousands of miles to developing parts of Asia and Africa.

Workers at this e-waste processing center in Bangalore, India, have more protection than others.
Workers at this e-waste processing center in Bangalore, India, have more protection than others. Credit: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
People hoping to earn a dollar a day collect machines and smash them with crude tools to strip gold, silver, and other precious metals out of circuit boards. They may come into dangerous contact with lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants. Some are exposed to more chemical harm by soaking circuit boards in acid, or burning PVC cabling to retrieve copper.

"That has to be one of the most treacherous jobs around, especially in light of the products being handled," says Sheila Davis, head of the nonprofit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "We see children in India smashing these monitors with sandals and no protective gear, and exposure to lead can cause significant neurological diseases and learning disabilities."

In addition, inmates in some U.S. prisons are exposed to the same toxic substances in e-waste recycling operations, earning from a nickel to $1.25 an hour.

The U.S. government doesn't closely track what happens to spent electronics. To prevent your used gear from being recycled under poor working conditions, resell or donate the equipment to someone who will keep it in use, and make sure recyclers are certified with the Basel Action Network's e-Stewards program.

6. Mining 'Conflict Minerals'

The eastern Congo is rich in the key ingredients that keep electronics ticking. The area holds tantalum for use in capacitors, tin for circuit-board solder, tungsten to make cell phones vibrate, and gold for connecting components. Despite such natural wealth, tens of thousands (or, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands) of people work in appalling conditions to extract those materials.

"Potentially each and every one of our cell phones, laptop computers, and PCs contains some of these conflict minerals," says Sasha Lezhnev, a researcher for human-rights group Global Witness.

"It's analogous to blood diamonds. You get a bunch of people digging in river streams by hand. Some are carving out a mountain literally. When I went out to the mines, I met many children as young as 11 years old. There were military commanders with AK-47s easily extracting money from everyone who mines."

Armed Congolese groups earn about $180 million each year in this trade, while the majority of the people live in poverty. Smugglers take $1 billion in materials out of the country every year, according to the Congolese government.

No tech company has been able to audit and certify that all of its products are "conflict-free," but some--including Intel and Motorola--are taking steps in that direction.

7. Infrastructure Work in War Zones

A dangerous job in peacetime is one thing, but try focusing on a task when you're the potential target for a sniper or a bomb. Whether building communications infrastructure for civilians or military operations, military personnel and private contractors in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan risk their lives on a regular basis.

It's unclear exactly how many people doing IT-related work have lost their lives among the 4734 Coalition military deaths in Iraq since 2003, and the 2061 dead in Operation Enduring Freedom since 2001 so far, as counted on the independent iCasualties Website.

According to a count conducted in September 2009, at least three telecommunications engineers are among the 533 foreign private contractors who have died in Iraq since the beginning of the conflict there. Two telecom engineers are among the 146 private foreign contractors who have perished in Afghanistan.

Follow Elsa Wenzel and TechAudit on Twitter.

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