Electronic Waste

electronic wasteSome people are concerned about radiation from cell phones possibly causing brain tumours. Others worry about exposure to wi-fi causing cancer. And now I’m getting questions about whether cell phones are toxic because they contain benzene. No, cell phones do not contain benzene. Where does this notion come form? A misinterpretation of a quest by some environmental groups to have Apple in China stop using benzene along with another solvent, hexane, in the production of electronic equipment such as cell phones. This is a very legitimate endeavour but it is not the cell phone user who is at risk, it is the workers involved in the production of the equipment.

Proper functioning of the circuitry embedded in electronic chips requires that they be free of any dirt, and the same goes for touch screens. Benzene is an excellent solvent for cleaning chips and hexane is used to rinse touch screens. But there is a problem. Benzene is a carcinogen and hexane can affect the nervous system. As I often say, there are no safe or dangerous chemicals, only safe or dangerous ways to uses them. And unfortunately in China safety standards are lax and workers are commonly exposed to dangerous amounts of benzene and hexane. The incidence of leukemia due to benzene is unusually high, as are neurological symptoms due to hexane. Instituting proper safety systems with specialized ventilation is not likely to happen, but safer alternative solvents are available. Rubbing alcohol can be used instead of benzene and heptane is safer than hexane. This might add a little extra cost but would save a great deal of misery.

The solvents used in production are only one of the problems associated with our massive reliance on electronic goods. What to do with discarded equipment is a huge issue. Recycling usable parts is an obvious goal, but it only pays if cheap labour can be found. And that is available in China. There is valuable gold in microchips, as well as silver. There’s lots of copper in electronics, as well as palladium, platimun and ruthenium. There’s also iron, zinc, aluminum, cobalt, indium, gallium and selenium. All these have recyclable value. And then there are the hazardous metals suc as mercury, lead, beryllium, arsenic, cadmium and antimony. There’s also glass and various plastics.

The problem of course is to separate all these components which is a requirement for recycling. Workers often use bare hands to break the equipment apart and then heat the circuit boards to remove chips and solders, burn wires to get at copper and use strong acids to extract gold. Plastic parts are often incinerated to leave metals behind. Since polyvinyl chloride is a common plastic, there is a serious issue with the release of dioxins, highly toxic chemicals that form when chlorine containing organic compounds are heated to a high temperature. Nearby water get polluted and children are found to have high levels of lead. By law China is not supposed to import electronic garbage but nevertheless this happens routinely. And for what sort of pay do workers, many of them children, risk their health? About 17 cents and hour with an average workday being sixteen hours. This is something to think about next time you trade in that phone for one that you don’t really need.


Joe Schwarcz

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