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Can my computer poison me?

Dell raised a kerfuffle with the Better Business Bureau's advertising division over a claim in a 2008 Apple commercial touting "the world's greenest family of notebooks." Dell charged that the phrasing intentionally misled consumers into thinking that Apple's entire catalog of computers was environmentally friendly, rather than just its special line of eco-conscious models [source: Ensha]. Although the argument may seem like a useless quarrel over semantics, it's an interesting illustration of the murky realm of green electronics.

As with many retail companies these days, some computer manufacturers are burning the midnight oil to add a green sheen to their products. Much of the stuff inside PCs and laptops that make it possible to read this article, for instance, isn't exactly gentle on the environment -- or the human body, for that matter.

In 2006, Greenpeace published the results of an X-ray examination of the materials found inside five leading brands of laptops (Acer, Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard and Sony), revealing a laundry list of heavy metals and chemical compounds either known or suspected to pollute the environment and potentially cause health problems in humans. For example, the internal wiring of three out of the five laptops contained polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC [source: Greenpeace Research Laboratories]. A known carcinogen, PVC exposure can lead to nerve damage, immune reactions and liver cancer [source: Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry].

The presence of brominated flame retardants (BFRs), found in the cooling mechanisms of all of the tested laptops, was cause for more alarm. Bromine-based chemical compounds may be carcinogenic to humans and have triggered thyroid problems, neurobehavioral disorders, liver tumors and immune system problems in test rats and mice [source: Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry]. These compounds can leach out of computers, into the air and into humans' bodies. Moreover, a swipe test study of 16 office computers in eight different states found traces of BFR dust on each one [source: McPherson, Thorpe and Blake]. Although the amounts of BFR are small, environmental groups are more concerned about potential bioaccumulation, in which it gradually builds up in the body after long-term exposure.

The European Union now prohibits the use of mercury, cadmium, certain BFRs and other elements from electronics manufacturing. But if people don't live in Europe and aren't in the market for new nontoxic computers, should they fret about endangering their health whenever they press that power button?

 

E-waste often ends up in African and Asian countries, including China.

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E-waste and You

There are a couple of reasons to be grateful for the sturdy plastic casings that house the guts of PCs and laptops. For one thing, they keep the circuit boards, computer chips and rainbows of wires nested together in aesthetically pleasing packages. Second, they prevent users from direct exposure to heavy metals and toxic chemicals. Remember the mercury that the Greenpeace study found inside of some laptops? Thanks to the laptop casings, people are more protected from the gastrointestinal problems, kidney damage and nervous system disorders linked to mercury contact. In addition, the amounts of these potential toxins should be too small to pose a direct health threat to consumers [source: Tweney].

Rather than agonizing over their computers poisoning them, consumers should be more concerned about what happens at the beginning and end of the machine's life cycle. People working in computer manufacturing plants may work closely with toxic chemicals, and those same chemicals can escape from factories and pollute the air and water supplies in surrounding communities [source: Tweney].

Computer disposal has also become a mounting problem in the past decade. When people give their old gadgets the heave-ho, the goods often end up in landfills -- heavy metals, compounds and all. In fact, from 1999 to 2005, Americans threw away more than 157 million computer products [source: Environmental Protection Agency]. More alarmingly, computers are only a slice of the entire e-waste pie that includes all electronics products, such as televisions, toaster ovens and alarm clocks. The European Union alone generates about 9.3 million tons (8.5 million tonnes) of e-waste annually, with around 75 percent of it going to the dump [source: Clayton].

The devastating trickle effect of e-waste ends in some of the poorest regions of the world. Ghana and Nigeria in particular have made entire industries out of being the final resting places for unwanted computers and electronics. In Agbogbloshie, Ghana, which is one of the largest e-waste sites on the planet, children and adults inhale dangerous chemical emissions as they pick through and burn the gutted e-remains [source: Clayton]. Soil tests at sprawling e-waste sites in China showed incredibly high levels of bromine-based flame retardants, which are linked to thyroid and liver damage; blood tests of workers at those same sites revealed BFR levels 50 to 200 times higher than the average population [source: Jacquot].

To dam the hazardous e-waste stream, many leading electronics manufacturers, including Dell, Apple, Hewlett Packard and Toshiba, have implemented computer recycling programs. People can send back old models, sometimes for a fee, with the promise that the company will recycle or refurbish it. Slowly but surely, computer manufacturers are also jumping on the European Union's bandwagon and phasing out toxic chemicals. And although the Better Business Bureau ruled favorably for Apple in its commercial-related dispute with Dell, the fight for the electronics eco-crown is far from over.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. "ToxFAQs for Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers." September 2004. (July 29, 2009) http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts68-pbde.html
  • Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. "ToxFAQs for Vinyl Chloride." July 2006. (July 29, 2009)http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts20.html
  • Clayton, Jonathan. "MoD computers become part of Ghana's dangerous trade in e-waste." Times
  • Ensha, Azadeh. "Dell Calls 'Green' MacBook Ads Misleading." New York Times. June 19, 2009. (July 29, 2009)http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/dell-calls-green-macbook-ads-misleading/
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics." Updated Nov. 3, 2008. (July 29, 2009)http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm
  • Greenpeace Research Laboratories. "Toxic Chemicals in Computers Exposed." Greenpeace. September 2006. (July 29, 2009)http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/toxic-chemicals-in-computers.pdf
  • McPherson, Alexandra; Thorpe, Beverley; and Blake, Ann. "Brominated Flame Retardants in Dust on Computers: A Case for Safer Chemicals and Better Computer Design." Clean Production Action. June 2004. (July 29, 2009)http://www.cleanproduction.org/library/bfr_report_pages1-43.pdf
  • Thomas, Justin. "Non-toxic Computers Coming Soon: The RoHS Deadline." TreeHugger. June 23, 2006. (July 29, 2009)http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/06/nontoxic_comput.php
  • Tweney, Dylan. "What's Inside Your Laptop?" PC Magazine. March 14, 2007. (July 29, 2009)http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2102888,00.asp