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E-Waste: Pulling the Plug on a Public Health Emergency

​By Brigette Polmar

This post is the first in a series on insights into exposure assessment as presented at AIHce EXP 2017 in Seattle, Wash. References to specific products or services do not constitute endorsement by AIHA or The Synergist.

Due to the fast pace of technology, the lifespan of electronics is shrinking. Upgrading to the latest and greatest technologies may be good for business and your quality of life, but tossing the outdated gadgets has a serious dark side. Mountains of discarded electronics—40 million tons worldwide—are creating a public health emergency. E-waste, also known as e-scrap, IT-waste, or EoL, has birthed the e-recycling industry, an industry that may expose workers and communities to serious chemical health hazards.

“We produce incredible amounts of e-waste,” said Diana Ceballos, PhD, CIH, a former industrial hygienist at NIOSH. “Our homes are covered wall-to-wall in electronics and electrical equipment—things like toys, solar panels, even Christmas trees. Our offices, hospitals, laboratories, and many of our workplaces produce a lot of electronic waste.” Ceballos points out that the waste can be sent to a formal recycling facility, a landfill or incinerator. In other cases, the waste is returned to the manufacturer or can be refurbished, constituting intelligent reuse. 

Ceballos is part of a team that conducted a systematic review of the literature on occupational and environmental health hazards of formal e-recycling facilities and revealed challenges and opportunities to strengthen research in the industry. She presented her findings at AIHce EXP 2017 in Seattle, Wash. 

The United States is the top producer of e-waste in the world and is also the world’s greatest exporter of e-waste. Twenty-five states currently have legislation addressing e-waste. As a result, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the U.S. e-recycling industry employs 45,000 workers, not including a large number of informal workers. Still, the domestic industry recycles only a small portion of the nation’s e-waste. 


The Exposure

The toxic metals overexposure risk is real. “When you do the recycling, shredding and breaking of these materials, there’s a lot of potential toxic chemicals that can be produced,” said Ceballos, noting that old televisions and computer monitors can contain up to 3 kg of lead. “Of particular concern are lead and cadmium, because cathode ray tubes are a large part of the waste. Even though they’re not produced anymore, there’s a backlog of decades in terms of recycling. The lead was [initially] used to shield us from the rays that were produced by the televisions. Lead dust causes serious health effects, including, but not limited to, cancer and respiratory, neurologic, renal, and reproductive damage.”

Printed circuit boards alone may contain silver, gold, copper, nickel, and lead. Wires contain copper. Lightbulbs and switches contain mercury. And touch screens may expose workers to indium. 

Organic compound exposures include flame-retardants and PCBs from transformers and capacitors. “It was clear that higher exposures to brominated flame retardants at e-waste recycling facilities were higher compared to the reference populations that were studied in Sweden,” said Ceballos.

“There was also some documentation that surface contamination is present in these workplaces. The most hazardous processes were shredding or specialized processes where they actually take the integrity of the electronic and create a lot of dust.”

All e-recycling sites are not created equal. Formal e-scrap recycling is performed by licensed and permitted facilities that process e-waste indoors with some level of industrial hygiene, worker protections, and pollution controls. However, the degree of formalization varies and may affect exposures. 

Ceballos sites a long list of plausible health outcomes for workers in e-waste sites. These include “changes in thyroid function, changes in cellular expression and function, adverse neonatal outcomes, reproductive health, changes in temperament and behavior,” she said, concluding that better designed epidemiological investigations in vulnerable populations are needed to confirm the associations.

But it’s not only workers who are at risk. “There’s definitely a concern in terms of things coming out of these facilities,” Ceballos explained. “Take-home exposures may be a common and ignored pathway even in developed countries.” In China, higher levels of PCBs were found in the dust of migrant workers’ houses than were found in their neighbors’ homes. Perhaps most disturbing is a case in which two U.S. children, who were related to a worker in the e-cycling industry, suffered lead poisoning. “Even though they were very young when they were lead poisoned, the mom came out and shared that these kids are already showing hyperactivity, behavioral problems, learning deficits—a lot of the typical issues that come with lead poisoning. They are paying a price for the rest of their lives.”


The Solution

“I think these problems are probably the tip of the iceberg,” said Ceballos, noting that the worldwide literature review only uncovered 37 articles—and only 26 of those focused on occupational health. “That indicates there’s been little focus on the issues of health and safety in the industry.” The study concludes that assessing exposures, health, and improving controls are urgent in formal e-recycling. 

In addition, Ceballos and her team recommend a two-tier research framework. “In the long term, it’s really about creating a new generation of electronics and improving recycling of all the electronics. There is a [separation] between the advances in technologies and the end-of-life treatments of things, and that needs to be reconciled at some point,” she explained. “We need easy-to-disassemble components. When that’s not the case, they are just shredded. A lot of the new technologies are very small and very difficult for e-recyclers to deal with. It’s almost like we’re encouraging more things to be shredded. Electronics are not going away any time soon, so we must work together as a community to solve this complex problem.”


Brigette Polmar is a professional brand journalist who covers the industrial hygiene profession, AIHA member news, AIHce EXP, and more. A former Washington correspondent and broadcast journalist, Polmar is the founder of Brand Spoken, specializing in industry-specific coverage on paper, online, and on the air.

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