Sunday, August 21, 2005

Where Computers Go When They Die (And who pays the consequences)

I spent part of last night packing up an old computer to send back to the manufacturer of my new computer. For only $25 they'll take the CPU and the old, scratched monitor off my hands and send them to the great computer graveyard in the sky.

Recycling my computer is agood thing, right?

But then, by coincidence, Rory over across the pond, sends me an article from the China Labor Bulletin about The Plight of China's E-Waste Workers about the men, women and children in China who spend their days pounding apart computer parts and separating out the valuable components without any sort of protection:
The health hazards faced by Li Xiu Lan and other workers in the E-waste trade are as numerous as the list of toxins found inside an average PC. Metal plates inside the chassis are often coated with hexavalent chromium. Circuit boards and their components usually contain a toxic mixture of beryllium, mercury and cadmium, with individual components held together with lead solder. Old-style cathode ray tube monitors contain barium, phosphorus, hexavalent chromium, and a substantial amount of lead in the radiation shielding of the glass and lead solder used on wires and connections.

It's because of the recognized dangers of handling these components that E-recycling is more costly in the first world, and this is why the bulk of electronic waste is shipped to the developing world. Though China has specific and detailed laws designed to protect workers in hazardous industry, enforcement is either lax or non-existent. E-waste workers in Guiyu use bare hands to disassemble hazardous electronic detritus, soaking circuit boards in tubs of acid and heating motherboards over open fires to recover trace metals. Safety equipment is rarely present, and images of workers melting plastic off an IBM motherboard using a coal brazier, and sorting cathode tubes and microchips into plastic buckets, present an ironic juxtaposition of low and high-tech.

The health consequences to workers involved in processing high tech waste are many and varied. The toxic effects of lead to the kidneys, nervous and reproductive system are well known. Exposure to mercury contributes to brain and kidney damage, as well as being linked to birth defects. Barium can cause brain swelling, muscle weakness and damage the heart, liver and spleen, and dioxin is a known carcinogen. And then there are other elements found in E-waste; phosphorus, branded by the U.S. Navy as 'extremely toxic', and beryllium, recently classified as a human carcinogen, are both found inside of computer hardware.

Long-term health studies of China's E-waste workers have yet to be conducted. However, according to a report from the Medical Sciences College of Shantou University, health checkups of Guiyu's E-waste workers revealed that 88 percent of them suffered from skin diseases or had developed neurological, respiratory or digestive ailments. Furthermore, Greenpeace China reports that the majority of workers they spoke to while doing environmental studies in Guiyu complained of illnesses ranging from respiratory ailments to skin disease.
Oy. Maybe I should just bury the damn thing in the back yard.