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Waste Not, Want Not

Governments are taking note of calls to restrict hazardous substances in electronics

June 28, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 26

Computer junk is now a major problem.
Computer junk is now a major problem.

Consumers love the latest cell phones and gadgets, and no business today is without its computers and monitors. But the omnipresence of electronics in modern life has a seamy underside.

A growing chorus of critics is taking the makers of electronic equipment to task for health hazards they say workers are exposed to in assembly facilities. They are also critical of emissions from semiconductor plants, suggesting that the emissions may be dangerous to nearby residents' health. Obsolete electronic equipment is another problem, they say. Mountains of discarded equipment allow toxins to leach into the ground and water, exposing even more people to harm.

Responding to such complaints, the European Union has adopted legislation that will soon restrict use of certain substances in the manufacture of electronics and mandate recycling of materials. A few states, including California and Massachusetts, have also forbidden monitor disposal in landfills and incinerators. Japan and China, too, are attempting to limit hazardous material use in electronic goods.

Labeling schemes are already in place to let consumers know that certain electronic products for sale are "green." The EU, for instance, allows manufacturers to use its Ecolabel on products that both limit the use of substances that harm the environment and have an end-of-life take-back policy.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the venerable safety testing and certification organization, is also getting into the act. It is now offering assistance to electronics makers who need help in reducing or eliminating restricted materials.

CONCERNS ABOUT chemicals used to manufacture electronics came to the fore in March, when a California jury cleared IBM of charges that chemicals used in the manufacture of hard drives sickened workers at a plant in San Jose. Plaintiffs' attorneys had asserted that, between 1969 and 2000, workers exposed to chemicals such as acetaldehyde, benzene, epichlorohydrin, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, nitromethane, trichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride "were dying disproportionately of cancer at a much younger age than people in the general population."

Chemical makers have good reason to be concerned about such suits: Royal Dutch/Shell and the Union Carbide subsidiary of Dow Chemical were also involved in the California trial because they supplied solvents and etchants to the San Jose plant.

In a second case, also resolved in March, IBM settled out of court with the child of a former worker who charged that her birth defects were the result of her mother's exposure to chemicals used in the New York semiconductor plant where she worked. IBM settled that case because, a spokesman said, "anyone with empathy can see [the plaintiff] does have significant injuries." However, he added, "that does not mean that her mother's work experience at IBM was the cause of those injuries." More than 200 lawsuits alleging harm from chemicals used in electronics manufacture are pending against IBM nationwide.

Residents in communities downwind from electronics manufacturing plants are also worrying. New Mexico's state Environment Department is investigating complaints about emissions from Intel's semiconductor plant in Rio Rancho, where the firm makes Pentium microprocessors and flash memory chips. Residents living in Corrales and southern Rio Rancho attribute their health problems to strong odors originating from the plant.

Then, too, environmental groups complain that discarded electronics pose a hazard to the environment. A study released jointly this month by the Computer TakeBack Campaign and Clean Production Action charges that dust from brominated fire retardants used in plastic computer housing poses a health hazard. Dust swipes of computers in homes, offices, schools, and businesses showed particularly high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which the groups called "neurotoxic" agents.

A report released in February by the Computer TakeBack Campaign and Californians Against Waste points out that "computer or television displays contain an average of 4 to 8 lb of lead." According to the report, "Poison PCs and Toxic TVs," the 315 million computers and monitors that became obsolete in the U.S. between 1997 and 2004 contain a total of more than 1.2 billion lb of lead. "Monitor glass contains about 20% lead by weight. When these components are illegally disposed and crushed in landfills, the lead is released into the environment, posing a hazardous legacy for current and future generations."

Government authorities are aware of the charges against certain materials used to make electronics, and they are taking action. The biggest response to "the global green initiative" is in Europe, says Scott MacLeod, a principal chemist at UL.

The European Parliament has issued a directive that will restrict the use of materials such as lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Called the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, its provisions begin to go into effect in 2006, MacLeod notes. A Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment directive, effective next August, sets up a scheme for recycle and reuse of 70 to 80% of electronic components and proper disposal of what's left over.

China, often criticized for lax environmental laws, has a new law known as Article 11 that mirrors the European Commission's RoHS directive, MacLeod says. Japan's Electrical Appliance & Material Safety Law also restricts hazardous material content in electronics, MacLeod says. In the U.S., California and Massachusetts have laws restricting the use of hazardous substances, while a similar law is pending in Maine.

California is going one step further with a new law. Starting next month, the Electronics Recycling Act of 2003 requires retailers to collect fees of $6.00 to $10 on all video display device sales. The fees will cover the cost of running a "free" program for the collection and recycling of cathode ray tubes.

According to MacLeod, UL envisions enlarging its current component evaluation and testing program to include testing for the presence of hazardous substances in electronic components such as plastics and printed circuit boards. Such a program could, for instance, help an electronics maker find qualified products to meet government and environmental group initiatives.

Such a service might help Korean electronics producer Samsung, which initialed an agreement earlier this month with environmental group Greenpeace to phase out hazardous chemicals used in its consumer electronics. Greenpeace tested a number of Samsung products and found phthalates, brominated flame retardants, synthetic musks, alkylphenols, or organotin compounds in most of them.

And it is not just Samsung that is moving in a green direction. Japanese electronics maker NEC has published goals for recycled content, lead-free solder, and ecolabels for its products. The firm claims to use lead-free solder in most of its products.

Other firms have a long way to go. According to a "report card" issued by the environmental group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), computer makers Hewlett-Packard and Dell have phased out less than 2% of solder containing lead.

Some makers have pledged to get the lead out as soon as they can. In April, Intel said it would eliminate 95% of the lead used in its processors and chips, starting later this year. An alloy of tin, silver, and copper will substitute for the lead.

As governments get behind restrictions on hazardous substances, electronics makers are paying attention to environmentalists' calls for action. Sheila Davis, clean computer campaign director at SVTC, says the group has been issuing its report card for the past five years. "The first year we sent out our survey to manufacturers, they didn't respond. But now they do, and they want to be included."


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