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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Throwing Away Gadgets Can Pollute Environment

Smartphones, computers, televisions and other device manufacturers produce newer and increasingly amazing gadgets and consumers worldwide keep tossing out perfectly functional old devices. For instance, Apple sold 4 million units of the new iPhone 4S on its release weekend, soundly beating the previous iPhone launch record of 1.7 million. This raises some serious environmental concerns. And all this electronic refuse threatens water, soil and air.

Americans trashed more than 20 million televisions, 157 million computers and computer accessories, and 126 million mobile phones in 2007, according to the most recent EPA data. In 2006, the United Nations estimated that we threw away between 20 million and 50 million tons of e-waste globally, which constitutes
5 percent of total municipal solid waste. The developing world tripled its disposal of electronic junk in the last five years.

While the sheer volume of electronic garbage is impressive on its own, it’s the chemicals involved that concern environmentalists. Electronic screens made of glass can be up to 27 percent lead. Computer circuit boards contain between 30 and 100 times the concentration of lead that is considered hazardous by the EPA. The metal can accumulate in the soil and disrupt natural ecosystems. Plants take lead in through their roots, and it can be passed on to grazing animals. While it’s not particularly water-soluble, it can leach into the groundwater under the right conditions. Computers that are incinerated can also release lead into the air.

Electronic waste also contains mercury, which is used in flat screens and can leach into groundwater if not properly collected by the lining systems in landfills. Eventually it could then make its way into the aquatic part of our food chain: fish. If consumed, mercury can cause nervous system damage. Cadmium and chromium, other metals used in electronics, are carcinogenic and can enter both the air and the water supply. (Wash Post, 10/31/2011, Illustration courtesy Michael Sloan/For the Washington Post)

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