Can my computer poison me?

E-waste and You

E-waste often ends up in African and Asian countries, including China.
E-waste often ends up in African and Asian countries, including China.
China Photos/Getty Images

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.

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More Great Links


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